Patrick Thomas Exonerated

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Stories of those being exonerated are
becoming increasingly common, with
wrongly convicted men and women
being released from prisons in the United
States at a rate of approximately one each
month. Many of these exonerations have
come after the DNA testing has proven an
individual’s innocence. When Patrick Thompson was set
free on May 16, 2008, it was not by any scientific evidence—
indeed, there was no evidence in this case—it was
by sheer people power.
To understand this case, it is important to go back to
2004 and the copwatch videotaping Thompson was doing
with his colleague Martel Miller. That Spring they founded
VEYA (Visionaries Educating Youth and Adults) and sent a
letter to Champaign police notifying them of their plan to
tape routine traffic stops with the intention of exposing
racial profiling and overpolicing of the black community.
Indeed, Thompson and Miller’s video Citizen’s Watch
caught local police in many embarrassing moments.
Among other things was footage of Assistant State’s Attorney
Elizabeth Dobson videotaping Thompson and Miller
while they were videotaping police. Dobson was riding
around with Champaign police collecting evidence to
prosecute the two black activists.
On Monday, August 23, 2004, Miller was indicted on
two counts of felony eavesdropping, an outdated state law
that carried four to 15 years in prison. On August 24,
2004, the very next day, Thompson was charged with sexual
abuse and home invasion. A white woman who lived
next to Thompson alleged that he entered her apartment at
approximately 7 a.m. in the morning and attempted to
rape her.
The same Assistant
State’s Attorney Elizabeth
Dobson who was directly
involved in stopping
Thompson and Miller from
videotaping (and is currently
named in a civil lawsuit),
was the same person who
convinced a grand jury that
Thompson should be
indicted for sexual abuse
and home invasion.
After significant public
outcry, State’s Attorney John
Piland dropped the eavesdropping
charges against
Miller, but not against
Thompson who remained in
jail on an exorbitant
$250,000 bond. Challenger for State’s Attorney’s office,
Julia Rietz, ran her campaign using the eavesdropping case
as an example of Piland’s overcharging. She spoke at the
First Annual Unity March in West Side Park organized by
CU Citizens for Peace and Justice. Her election was won
with the help of Miller and others in the community outraged
over the eavesdropping case.
In November 2004, John Piland was voted out of office
and Dobson went with him. When Rietz stepped in, she
dropped the eavesdropping charges against Thompson,
reduced his bond, and after spending four months in the
Champaign County jail Thompson was released. While
this decision was made by the newly-elected State’s Attorney,
it was the result of people coming together for police
accountability and reform of the criminal justice system.
Claiming she had given Thompson legal advice in the
past, Rietz said she had a conflict
of interest and withdrew
herself, effectively washing her
hands of the Thompson case
and disassociating herself
from the people who had
helped put her into office. The
home invasion and sexual
abuse case was then given to a
Special Prosecutor from
Springfield, Michael Vujovich,
who has a reputation for overzealous
Although Thompson had no
formal legal training, he made
the bold decision to defend
himself in the first trial, which
ended in a hung jury. In the second
trial, Thompson hired local
African American attorney Harvey Welch, who called only
one witness for the defense, and the trial resulted in a guilty
verdict. At this point, attorneys Bob Kirchner and Ruth
Wyman stepped in, filed a post-trial motion, and called several
additional witnesses. In a rare court decision, Judge Harry
Clem reversed the guilty verdict on the basis that Thompson
had received ineffective assistance of counsel from Welch.
This brings us to the third trial, which began Monday, May
12, 2008. The trial started with the selection of an allwhite
jury. Urbana officer Michael Hediger testified that he
responded to the 911 call the morning of August 24,
2004. He interviewed the accuser and went to the Sunnycrest
Apartments that afternoon
to arrest Thompson.
Hediger admitted he did not
conduct any further investigation
to take fingerprints,
photograph the crime scene,
collect hairs, conduct interviews,
or check the accuser
for scratches and bruises. It
is protocol for police to conduct
a full investigation in a
serious crime such as this
one. Whether Hediger did
not investigate because this
alleged crime occurred in a
poor neighborhood, or
because he was part of a plot
to set up Thompson is
uncertain. As Thomson’s
attorney Ruth Wyman later told me, “We’ll never know,
because who would admit to that?”
The accuser took the stand and again gave her account
of how Thompson, shirtless, entered her apartment,
grabbed, and attacked her. In police reports, she told officer
Hediger that she was yelling and screaming, yet the
state failed to produce any neighbors who heard anything
that morning. When Vujovich began to inquire about her
tone during the alleged incident, she said, “I don’t know
how to explain it.” She then began crying and the jury had
to be escorted out of the courtroom.
After questioning by the state, the accuser was crossexamined
by Bob Kirchner who asked about several inconsistent
statements made in the four times she has testified—
July 2005, July 2006, September 2007, and the currently
in 2008. Before, she said that Thompson had
trapped her in the laundry room. Another time she said
she first saw him at the railing in front of his apartment.
One time she testified that she had her laundry in a basket.
Another time she said she was carrying it in her arms. Was
she yelling or not? When asked about these inconsistencies,
she repeatedly responded, “I don’t remember.”
After all the state’s witnesses appeared, Vujovich rested
his case. Kirchner then motioned for a directed verdict on
the two counts, arguing that the state had not proved its
case on the charges of home invasion or sexual abuse.
It looked like a long shot. But in a miraculous turn of
events, Judge Clem allowed one of Kirchner’s motions and
dismissed the charge of home invasion. Of all things, he
ruled that the state had not proven that Patrick Thompson
was not a police officer! This is one of the elements
required to prove a charge of home invasion and Vujovich
had forgotten to question his witnesses on this point.
Vujovich attempted to argue that he had not closed his
case, but an angry Judge Clem said that he would not
allow that kind of “gamesmanship.”
It was an emotional moment and Thompson broke
down crying. At the recess, he rushed to embrace his longtime
friend Martel Miller in the courtroom. Even though
the sexual abuse charge remained, the weight of the six to
30 year sentence that home invasion carried was lifted off
of Thompson’s shoulders.
The defense presented its witnesses, which included
Patrick and his wife Maria. When asked to state her name
for the record, Maria began crying and the jury had to be
escorted out of the courtroom. After collecting herself,
Maria gave her recollection of the morning of August 24,
2004. She said that from 6:10 a.m. when she woke up, until
7:30 a.m. when her husband left to buy books for his fall
semester at Parkland College, he was always in her sight.
Thompson then took the stand, confidently testifying
to his work with VEYA in 2004 and his memory of events
at the time of the alleged incident. On Sunday, August 22,
he was at the Independent Media Center, then a storefront
on Main Street in downtown Urbana, filming for a video
documentary he was producing. He explained how a
microphone stand fell, injuring his right index finger.
Monday morning, he and Maria went to Osco to buy a finger
splint that he wore to protect it. His accuser never
mentioned in any of her accounts that the assailant was
wearing a finger splint.
Kirchner asked Thompson directly, “Did you know the
accuser and did you ever enter her apartment?” Thompson
stated flatly, “No.”
In closing arguments, Vujovich said this case depended on
whether or not the jury believed the accuser or not. Seeming
to direct his remarks at Thompson and his supporters, a rotating
pool of dozens who sat through the trial, Vujovich said that
we can blame the police, “But don’t blame the Urbana Police
Department for what happened to [the accuser].”
Kirchner, in closing, highlighted the many inconsistencies
in the accuser’s testimony. His explanation was that
whether because she was late for work or for some other
reason, “the excuse offered that morning took on a life of
its own.” This “evolving story,” he said, was not enough to
convict Thompson.
After the jury deliberated for approximately one hour,
they returned with a verdict of not guilty. Thompson cried
tears of joy, hugged his wife and said, “it’s over… it’s over.”
Throughout this four-year ordeal, Patrick Thompson
has been the galvanizing force for criminal justice reform
in Champaign County. But it has been community mobilization
which narrowly saved Patrick from the clutches of
the prison industrial complex. Thousands of dollars were
raised for his defense, many hours were spent watching
trials, and numerous protests were held at the courthouse.
This is the story of a man exonerated before he served
years in the penitentiary. It was people power that set
Patrick free.
For a full report of the trial and interviews after the verdict
go to

About Brian Dolinar

Brian Dolinar has been a community journalist since 2004.
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