An Illinois man who was wrongfully sentenced to life in prison for a crime he did not commit was released after 30 years behind bars.
Christopher Abernathy, 48, was released from Stateville Correctional Center on Feb. 11 after DNA evidence cleared him of the 1984 rape and murder of 15-year-old Kristina Hickey in Chicago, prosecutors said.
Abernathy’s mother, Ann Kolus, 73, screamed when she received the news that her son was finally being freed. She called Abernathy to tell him that he was coming home.
“This day is more than 10,000 days overdue,” Kolus told the Chicago Tribune. “I always knew in my heart that Chris was innocent, and I’m so thankful that my prayers have been answered and he is finally coming home.”
Cook County Conviction Integrity Unit prosecutors reopened Abernathy’s case in May 2014, citing “several troubling aspects of the case.”
Abernathy, who once dated Hickey, made strange comments at her funeral, according to witnesses at his trial. An acquaintance then told police that Abernathy had confessed to him that he murdered the girl.
According to court records, Abernathy later told authorities that he approached Hickey while she was walking home, tried having sex with her and accidentally killed her with a butterfly knife.
But Abernathy’s lawyers said that he had “documented learning disabilities,” adding that he left school at age 15.
After 40 hours of interrogation, Abernathy signed a letter implicating himself but Cook County State Attorney Anita Alvarez said that Abernathy felt coerced to sign that letter. She called the confession “quite thin,” adding there was insufficient evidence that he actually killed the girl.
“Today, would we be able to try a case on that? I don’t think so,” Alvarez said. “I cannot, I will not let a wrongful conviction stand.”
A judge ordered for DNA testing in August, an option that was not available in the 1980s. The results excluded Abernathy as the suspect, prosecutors said.
“We now know that Mr. Abernathy is excluded from every piece of available evidence,” Alvarez said. “To be clear, there is no DNA match that links him to the crime.
“It is my hope that some measure of justice is being served today, but there are no doubt many extremely sad and difficult aspects to this case.”
The man who originally implicated Abernathy said he too felt pressured by police to blame him. Prosecutors also said they plan to open a cold case investigation to find the man responsible for the gruesome murder of Hickey, whose body was found behind bushes near a department store with several stab wounds and a deep slash across her neck.
“It’s an unthinkable tragedy on every end,” defense attorney Lauren Kaeseberg said. “Someone got away with it, and Mr. Abernathy’s been sitting in this prison behind us for the last three decades having not done it.”
As for Abernathy, he still can’t believe he has been freed.
“It’s just scary to be out, ‘cause that’s all I know,'” he told the Chicago Tribune.
Abernathy also spoke about Hickey, offering his condolences to her family.
“I’m sorry this happened to her. She didn’t deserve it. She was a good friend,” Abernathy said. “I feel sorry for her mother, for her father, for her family.
“I pray to God they find the real people who actually did it.”