S5E1: A Cold Case, a False Confession, & the Diabolical Truth: Jason Strong’s Vindication After 15 Years Locked up in Hell
In December 1999, the body of an unidentified young woman was found beaten to death in a forest preserve near North Chicago in Lake County, IL. Ten days after the body was discovered, Jeremy Tweedy, Jason Johnson and Jason Strong were brought in for questioning after Tweedy mentioned the woman's death to an undercover police officer posing as a prostitute. Police charged 24-year-old Jason Strong with first-degree murder and concealing a homicide and charged Tweedy and Johnson with concealing a homicide. Officers furnished a narrative about the circumstances of the victim's death to the two purported "witnesses," Tweedy and Johnson, both of whom agreed to testify against Jason Strong in exchange for lesser prison sentences. Eventually all three men falsely confessed to beating the victim using information provided by the police, and all three later recanted their confessions. In July 2000, Tweedy pled guilty to obstruction of justice and was sentenced to two years in prison, and in September, Johnson pled guilty to concealing a homicide and was sentenced to three years in prison. On October 18, 2000, Jason Strong was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to 46 years in prison. In 2006, seven years after Jason’s incarceration, the victim was finally identified as Mary Kate Sunderlin, a developmentally disabled woman who lived in Kane County, IL. Around the time of her disappearance, it was known that Sunderlin had come under the influence of two women-a mother and daughter who had a record of preying on the disabled and the elderly-who befriended the victim in the spring of 1999 and forbade her from contacting her family, had used Sunderlin's bank card to withdraw large amounts of cash from her account, and had tried to get a new bank card in her name a year after her death. They had also arranged for Sunderlin's secret marriage to Gonzalo Chamizo, who was mentally ill with a history of violence, three weeks prior to her death. In 2002, Chamizo had been committed to a psychiatric hospital in Florida and during an interview with police investigating Sunderlin's disappearance had said he killed her and buried her in his backyard. In 2007, Thomas Geraghty, an attorney at Northwestern University's Bluhm Legal Clinic, joined Jason’s legal team and filed a motion for a new trial in 2010, citing new evidence regarding the identity of the victim and a recantation given by Tweedy. In 2013, the Illinois Attorney General and the Lake County State's Attorney agreed to re-investigate the case, leading to depositions of key state's witnesses and the discovery of previously unexamined medical evidence. In 2014, three medical experts independently reviewed the autopsy reports and photographs, and all concluded that the victim had died days before the discovery of her body and that many of her injuries were weeks or months old and consistent with chronic abuse-which meant that the confessions by Jason Strong and other two co-defendants were demonstrably false. On May 28th, 2015, Jason Strong's conviction was vacated, and he was released from Menard Correctional Center after serving 15 years in prison. In April 2016, Jason was granted a certificate of innocence from Lake County court. He is an aspiring filmmaker and currently working on a documentary about wrongful convictions.
Wrongful Conviction with Jason Flom is a production of Lava For Good™ Podcasts in association with Signal Co. No1 and PRX.