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Man Pardoned of Double Murder Has Civil Suit Revived

Lady Justice statue outdoors
By Laura Temme, Esq. on January 10, 2020

Johnnie Lee Savory was convicted of a double murder in 1977 - when he was just 14 years old. His first conviction was thrown out when the courts found his confession had been given involuntarily. But, he was convicted again when his case was retried with new testimony from acquaintances who claimed he made statements indicating he had committed the crime. Although they later recanted their testimony, Savory remained imprisoned for the first several decades of his adult life.

During his 30 years in prison, Savory never wavered in his story: He was innocent, and the police had set him up to take the fall for the murders. He exhausted his appeals and post-conviction options and pursued federal habeas corpus relief - all to no avail.

Savory was released on parole in 2006, and as advances in DNA evidence cast doubt on his guilt, the governor of Illinois commuted his sentence. In 2015, he was pardoned of the crime of murder.

A Ticking Clock

With his name newly cleared, Savory filed suit against the city of Peoria and individuals involved in his conviction. However, he soon found his fight wasn't over yet.

Finding that the clock began to tick down on the statute of limitations for Savory's claims when he was released on parole, the district court initially dismissed his suit as untimely. However, on appeal, the 7th Circuit found that the two-year limitations period accrued when Savory was pardoned in 2015. The 7th Circuit then granted the defendants' petition for another hearing en banc.

The full 7th Circuit (with Judge Easterbrook dissenting) found, once again, that Heck v. Humphrey controlled Savory's case because the claims resembled the common-law tort of malicious prosecution. In Heck, the Supreme Court found a cause of action for damages tied to an unconstitutional conviction or sentence "does not accrue until the conviction or sentence has been invalidated." In Savory's case, that invalidation was his pardoning in 2015.

Second Chances

Steven Art, one of Savory's attorneys, told local reporters that the original investigation was hindered by "tunnel vision," saying: "Do I think they set out to frame him? No, but they got an involuntary confession, tunnel vision began to set in and they excluded evidence that could have shown he was innocent."

Now that his case is headed back to the district court, perhaps Savory will finally have a chance to prove his innocence.

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