As director of the Conviction Integrity Unit in one of the nation’s largest prosecutorial offices, Cook County Assistant State’s Attorney Nancy Adduci is in charge of re-examining past cases to ensure that the office’s tremendous power has been employed justly.
That job is becoming more complicated with Adduci in the middle of a courthouse storm over allegedly hidden exculpatory evidence in three of her own prosecutions — all stemming from the 2011 murder of Chicago Police Officer Clifton Lewis.
A Cook County judge last month scolded the Police Department for withholding thousands of pages of records from a months-long investigation that led to the arrest and conviction of one of the alleged killers — records withheld for more than a decade.
One of the defense attorneys, Jennifer Blagg, said Adduci and another assistant state’s attorney on the case must have been aware of that evidence.
“Any prosecutor who worked as long and as hard as these prosecutors did would know,” Blagg said.
The case embroils not only Adduci, a career prosecutor in the office, but also State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, a self-styled progressive who put Adduci at the conviction-integrity helm instead of bringing in an outsider.
“It’s not ideal to have a prosecutor within your office handling conviction-integrity review,” said Rachel Barkow, a New York University law professor who studies criminal-justice administration. “You’re just so much better off hiring someone from outside the office who has done defense work or innocence work.”
Evidence from police investigation
Officer Lewis was shot by two masked men on Dec. 29, 2011, as he worked a second job as a security guard in a West Side convenience store.
Within days, police were blaming the Spanish Cobras, a street gang based in another neighborhood. The cops detained several members of the gang for questioning. They included Tyrone Clay and Edgardo Colon, who gave statements and were charged with murder. But prosecutors initially rejected charges against Alexander Villa, another Spanish Cobra. He was released.
Defense attorneys accused the police of tunnel vision that disregarded evidence implicating the Four Corner Hustlers, a street gang that claimed the blocks surrounding the store as its territory.
By February 2012, the police had enlisted other local law-enforcement agencies and federal authorities in a sweep they dubbed Operation Snake Doctor. The operation sought both to eradicate the Spanish Cobras and build a case against Villa, according to internal CPD records obtained by WBEZ. Snake Doctor’s name and scale — and its tie to the Lewis killing — were hidden from defense attorneys, they say.
The operation’s first few weeks led to 122 arrests and 1,966 investigatory stops, according to an internal police email from John Escalante, the deputy chief overseeing the Area 5 detective unit, who eventually became CPD’s interim superintendent.
In November 2013, prosecutors agreed that police had gathered enough evidence against Villa. He was charged with murder.
This fall — nearly 11 years after the murder — subpoenas from Blagg, an attorney for Villa, shook loose 35,000 pages of internal police emails and attachments related to Snake Doctor.
“A mountain of evidence that was not disclosed before my client’s trial involves a special operation whose mission was to obtain evidence against my client,” Blagg said. “It appears that hundreds and hundreds of witnesses were interviewed. And none of that evidence was turned over.”
Erica Reddick, the judge in the other two murder cases stemming from Officer Lewis’s killing, last month ordered CPD to turn over all remaining evidence about the case by Dec. 20.
“It is baffling that we are still discussing discovery, this many years after these charges have been lodged,” said Reddick, who also heads the circuit court’s criminal division. “That is a grave occurrence and it is one that will require the court to address.”
Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration appears to be pushing back on Reddick’s order. Last week, the city filed a letter from U.S. attorney John Lausch’s office warning that releasing information about a federal investigation tied to Officer Lewis’s murder would break grand jury secrecy rules.
Beyond the police sweep, defense attorneys are also accusing Adduci of failing to turn over a 2012 FBI analysis of cell tower data related to the killing. The lawyers say the analysis shows Colon, the alleged getaway driver, miles away from the store during the shooting.
“That was exculpatory evidence that should have been tendered to the defense when they found out about it,” Paul Vickrey, a lawyer for Colon, said at a September hearing.
Reddick asked Adduci when she found out about the FBI analysis. Adduci answered she could not remember.
“The phones became an issue in 2016,” Adduci said. “The evidence at that point was, in the state’s view, not evidence that we sought to use because we didn’t think it was good evidence. It wasn’t probative. It wasn’t relevant in our view, and that’s trial strategy.”
Another prosecutor, Andrew Varga, interjected that they did turn over a CPD report that discussed the FBI analysis, providing defense attorneys an opportunity to track down the analysis themselves.
And the prosecutors argued in a September court filing that they “are not required by the rules of discovery to be administrative assistants for the defendant or defense counsel.”
“The People are not required to be paralegals for defendant and review, analyze and relate back what is or is not relevant from reports defendants were tendered,” Adduci and Varga wrote.
In 1963, the U.S. Supreme Court in Brady v. Maryland ruled that withholding evidence relevant to the guilt or punishment of a criminal defendant violates the constitutional right to due process.
In 1995, the high court ruled in Kyles v. Whitley that prosecutors have a “duty to learn” of any exculpatory evidence held by police or others acting on behalf of the government.
Insider at conviction-integrity helm
Villa, convicted in 2019 but not yet sentenced, is pressing for a new trial. Colon was convicted too but an Illinois appellate court in 2020 ordered a new trial due to police having questioned him after he said he wanted a lawyer.
Clay has spent nearly 11 years in jail without any trial. In 2020, an appellate court affirmed a judge’s ruling that threw out his videotaped statements to police, finding he could not have waived his Miranda rights due to what his attorneys described as “limited intelligence and verbal comprehension.”
WBEZ asked Adduci when she learned of Operation Snake Doctor and the FBI’s 2012 analysis of the cell tower data.
She did not respond, but an emailed statement from Foxx’s office said prosecutors are “unable to comment on pending litigation.”
Melba Pearson, a former prosecutor in Florida who runs a prosecutorial metrics group, said alleging Brady violations is a common defense tactic across the country.
Often, Pearson said, the evidence in question is insignificant and concealed unintentionally due to miscommunication between prosecutors and police.
“It may be just the left hand didn’t know what the right hand was doing,” said Pearson, who worked 16 years as a Miami-Dade County assistant state’s attorney. “The prosecutor is trying to figure out what exists and how best can we get that to the defense.”
In Cook County, however, the state’s attorney’s office has a history of prosecuting cases in which police have kept secret “street files” containing evidence favorable to criminal defendants.
Foxx took office in 2016 promising to address the county’s reputation as “the wrongful conviction capital of the U.S.”
Foxx brought in former federal prosecutor Mark Rotert to overhaul the Conviction Integrity Unit. Rotert had spent two decades in defense work with Chicago-based law firms. In Foxx’s office, he was viewed as an outsider.
“It’s very hard to review somebody that you’ve worked with or that you know,” said Barkow, the NYU professor. “So bringing in an outsider who has defense experience and really can interrogate a case is ideal. And I think pretty much everyone who studies these [conviction integrity units] now agrees that’s the best practice.”
“They aren’t career prosecutors,” Barkow said. “So they’re not beholden to the office itself.”
After Rotert left Foxx’s office in 2019, she replaced him with Adduci, who had spent 23 years in the state’s attorney’s office. Foxx had Adduci stay on as a prosecutor in the murder cases related to Officer Lewis’s killing.
“All the concerns about bias and objectivity are magnified … if the case involves a law enforcement officer as the victim,” Barkow said. “Not only do you have all the pressures of prosecutors reviewing fellow prosecutors, but you’re doing it in a case that also brings up the relationship of the office to the police department that you rely on to bring most of the cases.”
WBEZ asked spokespersons for Foxx’s office how the emergence of exculpatory evidence in Adduci’s murder prosecutions could affect public trust in the Conviction Integrity Unit. The office said it could not comment on pending cases.