Law professor Steven Drizin had seen it over and over and it hurt him: prosecutors fighting a decade-long legal battle to justify a teenager's confession to a serious crime. Illinois versus Hester, as one colleague put it, "smelled bad too".

It seemed likely that Lee Arthur Hester, the black 14-year-old defendant on the case, falsely confessed to fatally stabbing a white teacher. As they dealt with the 1961 conviction, Drizin and colleagues at Northwestern University believed that Hester had been cursed by racist authorities, an injustice that controlled the fate of many boys and girls for years to come.

Erasing Hester's name wouldn't be easy. Evidence was gone. Important witnesses had died.

In this case, it wasn't about getting Hester out of prison either. He was paroled in 1972, which means there would be no public pressure to rescue a man from death row. But in the face of such an obvious injustice, they thought they had to try.

“There is no expiration date for justice. It's not like a carton of milk, ”said Drizin. “So many false confessions have been taken from young African American boys and men in this city. It's not just a problem that started in the 1970s, 1980s or 1990s. There's a long, long history here. And Lee Arthur's case was an important part of that story. "

The front page of the Chicago Tribune the day after Lee Arthur Hester, a black 14-year-old, was arrested in the murder of a white teacher at his school.

(Chicago Tribune)

Drizin, 59, is co-director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University Law School and sees and acts just like the law professor – wearing glasses, gray hair, and speaking in careful, full heels.

The professor helped relieve at least 20 men and women convicted of serious crimes. He specializes in clearing false confessions from teenagers, particularly African Americans in Chicago, who were victims of racist police practices.

Drizin decided to investigate the Hester case in 2010 after discussing it with a Northwestern colleague, Thomas F. Geraghty, who had long doubted the police had arrested the right suspect. Drizin, working in his crowded office overlooking Lake Michigan, began researching the history of the case.

Steven Drizin

Steven Drizin, a Northwestern University law professor, spent a decade clearing the name of a man he believed was falsely accused of murder when he was 14.

(Holden Blanco)

Hester was quickly arrested on April 20, 1961 for stabbing and raping one of his favorite teachers, 45-year-old Josephine Keane, in a storeroom at their school, Lewis-Champlin, on the south side of that town.

In just a few decades, Lewis-Champlin had transitioned from an almost all-white to an all-black student body, reflecting the seismic demographic shift across Chicago. The murder touched a nerve, especially among whites who were concerned that blacks might move into their neighborhood.

The murders and arrests received intense coverage from Chicago's newspapers and radio stations. The Chicago Tribune featured a front-page story of Hester's arrest, alongside articles about the failed Bay of Pigs Invasion and a speed record set by the X-15 jet. The city's other newspapers published a photo of Keane's body in a body bag and an article on how teachers "have been worried for some time about the increasing danger some of them are facing in schools in certain neighborhoods".

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The tensions continued. Less than six months after Hester's arrest, black and white bystanders packed shoulder to shoulder into a Chicago courtroom to witness the trial. "It was impossible to ignore the overtones of racism," reported the Chicago Defender, a black-run newspaper, among whites who were convinced of Hester's guilt.

When Drizin combed the newspaper archives, the professor was impressed by the way Hester was portrayed in the media. Photos showed a boy who was so light that his clothes hung on him as if he were a coat hanger. Even so, a newspaper described him as a tyrant and "strong as an ox".

Hester was convicted after a two-week trial – the jury had one black member and eleven whites – and sentenced to 55 years in prison. The boy lost his calling. In an unexpected twist, Drizin discovered that Hester's attorneys argued before the Supreme Court that the adolescent's confession should have been suppressed and his conviction overturned. For reasons lost to history, the judges declined to make a decision. (Under a 2017 Illinois law, in Hester's circumstances, the police cannot question anyone without an attorney present.)

Drizin met Hester through Jerome Feldman, a lawyer who defended the boy in 1961. Feldman, who has since died, told Drizin that he never believed Hester was innocent and that they had become lifelong friends.

As a gospel singer who made a living doing odd jobs, Hester reiterated his innocence and stated that he had not allowed the conviction to derail his life. Hester, who had been paroled early for good behavior, had kept his beliefs a secret from his own children. The 73-year-old declined to comment on the story.

Hester agreed for Drizin and his Northwestern colleagues – including Laura Nirider, the 38-year-old co-director of the Center for Unlawful Conviction – to bring a lawsuit to clear his name.

(Drizin and Nirider would claim a crime in the Netflix documentary "Making a Murderer." For their unsuccessful efforts to convict Brendan Dassey, who at age 16 confessed to participating in the 2005 rape and killing of Teresa Halbach. )

The front page of the Chicago Tribune reported the conviction in the case.

The front page of the Chicago Tribune reported the conviction in the case.

(Chicago Tribune)

Drizin and Nirider soon received reports showing how Hester got under the police microscope. Investigators were convinced that a black student was responsible, and detectives, including one who was later convicted of drug trafficking, turned Hester on. The boy was an easy target – a fifth year of sub-par intelligence whom white teachers reported had behavioral problems.

Detectives noticed that Hester had a lipstick stain on his collar and a blood stain on his pants. He was taken to a juvenile detention center for questioning without a lawyer or parent in the room.

Hester initially retained his innocence. But the police were relentless. They lied about the crime scene, about the evidence, that Hester was allowed to go to his mother's house if he only confessed, the boy testified. After hours alone in what Hester called a "dark dungeon," he admitted killing and sexually assaulting Keane.

The confession made no sense to the northwest professors. The boy claimed he accidentally stabbed Keane in the back after tripping over some books. He stumbled again and hit her a second time in the back; Teacher was actually stabbed in the chest and right side. Hester's description of the sexual assault did not match the evidence gathered on site.

The professors were puzzled by how the police could believe that a boy 6 inches shorter and 35 pounds lighter than Keane overwhelmed the teacher, stabbed her, raped her, and quietly returned to class without anyone being the smarter.

In their investigation, Nirider and Drizin even discovered a better suspect – a white engineer at the school who had been institutionalized in the past and was taken to a mental health facility after Hester's arrest. They received government reports which further indicate that the engineer was a violent paranoid schizophrenic. The man had beaten his wife and children and was believed to have been a religious fanatic obsessed with sex.

The Northwestern team tried to overturn the conviction, but prosecutors fought their efforts. In 2015, a judge denied the attorneys' request, ruling that their arguments were based on nothing more than "speculation, rumors and sympathy".

The prospects for Hester looked bad until the next year, Kim Foxx, a political progressive, won Cook County's best prosecutor. One of their first steps was to reinforce a unit tasked with reviewing problematic law enforcement activities and discarding false beliefs.

Drizin saw an opening and went to see a former US attorney, Patrick Fitzgerald, who had expressed an interest in breaking false beliefs.

Fitzgerald, a former top Chicago federal attorney who handled or oversaw some of the Justice Department's most prominent criminal cases, agreed to review the files.

"This was an important bowel check for us," said Drizin. "He doesn't come from our background. He's a prosecutor who takes people away."

Patrick Fitzgerald, a former US attorney, agreed to look into the case.

Patrick Fitzgerald, a former American attorney who had expressed an interest in the removal of false beliefs, agreed to investigate the Hester case.

(Tim Boyle / Getty Images)

The former prosecutor agreed with the Northwestern team's assessments and wrote a 29-page letter to Foxx's office poking holes in the boy's confession and destroying the junk science prosecutors Hester with the Linked crime. He also methodically presented the case against the engineer.

Mark Rotert, who was leading Foxx's Conviction Integrity Unit at the time, was impressed. After reviewing the files, Rotert and his lawyers concluded that they had never prosecuted Hester – the whole case was a mess.

"What grabbed me when I read through it at the beginning was the confession that seemed implausible to me," said Rotert. "And I don't think the police did anything damned to investigate this murder when they put Lee Arthur in a police car. They missed a much better suspect. And science was discredited. There was nothing here."

In May 2019 Rotert applied to a court to have the conviction reversed. A judge agreed.

A more difficult decision was emerging for the prosecutor. Hester's attorneys asked Foxx not to oppose her request for a certificate of innocence. Such a certificate issued by a judge would determine that Hester was indeed innocent, which enabled him to receive approximately $ 200,000 in compensation from the state for his time behind bars.

Prosecutors often did not support the issuing of such certificates unless the evidence of innocence was specific and overwhelming. Hester's case didn't seem so straightforward. But when Foxx reviewed the files and arguments, she came to a conclusion. "Justice requires that we do what is right in even the darkest and oldest cases," Foxx said. The prosecutors did not oppose the request.

Justice came in January. In the same building where an elementary school student showed no emotion six decades earlier when a jury found him guilty of murder, an old man wept as a judge declared his innocence and reformulated Illinois' racist legacy against Hester.

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