Chicago Tribune

14-year nightmare ends for ex-officer

Once on Death Row, now totally free

By Steve Mills
Tribune staff reporter

February 27, 2004
Steve Manning
Steve Manning in prison

Steve Manning, the former Chicago police officer who in 2000 became Illinois' 13th exonerated Death Row prisoner, walked out of a Missouri jail Thursday after prosecutors there dropped all charges against him.

The decision, which prosecutors attributed to the age of the case, means that Manning is free for the first time in nearly 14 years, after two cases investigated by Chicago-based FBI agents came undone under scrutiny from state and federal appeals courts.

Manning had been serving two life terms plus 100 years.

"This is unprecedented--to have two cases overturned like this," Manning said by phone shortly after he had walked out of the Platte County Jail near Kansas City.

"But there's mixed emotions. I'm obviously thrilled to be out after all these years," Manning said. "But the FBI robbed me of 14 years of my life. ... Now I'm back to the guy I was when I was arrested."

Both of Manning's convictions occurred after his departure from the police force in 1983, when he was implicated in a car-insurance-fraud scheme and later convicted.

In 1990, Manning, who had been an informant for the FBI, was arrested in Chicago and charged with taking part in the 1984 kidnapping of two reputed Kansas City drug traffickers.

Authorities said the dealers did not report the crime for six years.

While Manning was being held in Cook County Jail, authorities used a well-known jailhouse informant, Tommy Dye, to try to get Manning to confess to the kidnapping as well as to a 1990 Cook County murder, the shooting of trucking-firm owner James Pellegrino.

Pellegrino was shot and then dumped in the Des Plaines River.

Convicted in Missouri in 1992

Manning was convicted of the Missouri kidnapping in 1992 and then was brought back to Cook County, where local prosecutors took over the murder case when a federal grand jury declined to indict Manning for the slaying of Pellegrino.

Manning was convicted in 1993 and sentenced to death.

A Tribune investigation in November 1999 examined Manning's conviction as well as the use of jailhouse informants.

The Tribune's investigation found that both were deeply flawed.

Dye had a lengthy history of lying under oath and of receiving benefits from prosecutors in exchange for testimony in cases.

In the Cook County case, Dye testified that Manning had confessed to killing Pellegrino and that he got Manning's confession on a hidden tape recorder. But when the tapes were played at trial, there was no confession--only two brief gaps that Dye said contained the confessions.

Dye said the gaps were caused by malfunctions of the recorder.

The Illinois Supreme Court reversed Manning's conviction and gave him a new trial because a judge allowed testimony from Pellegrino's wife, which the court ruled was inadmissible.

Cleared in 2000

Cook County prosecutors dismissed the case in January 2000, and Manning became the 13th Death Row inmate to be cleared of a capital conviction, compared with the 12 inmates who had been executed. Two weeks later, Gov. George Ryan declared a moratorium on executions.

In dropping the case, Cook County prosecutors said they took consolation in the fact Manning likely would spend the rest of his life in prison in Missouri for his kidnapping conviction there.

But that case also appeared to be deeply flawed. The kidnapping ringleader, who testified against Manning in a deal with prosecutors, later complained that police had not kept their promise to pay him for his testimony--a deal that had not been disclosed to defense attorneys. He also allegedly received favors in the jail, including meals from restaurants.

Witness flip-flopped

The testimony of a key witness also came under fire. She had said at a pretrial sworn deposition and at Manning's first trial, which ended in a hung jury, that she could not identify Manning as a kidnapper. At Manning's second trial, she identified him.

"I'm not sure a kidnapping even occurred," said Manning's Kansas City attorney, Cynthia Short. "Not only do I think Steve was never involved, I don't know it happened."

The case was weakened further when a federal appeals court in November 2002 granted Manning a new trial, saying that the FBI's use of a woman--Dye's then-girlfriend--as a government agent violated Manning's constitutional right to counsel. The court said her testimony could not be used if Manning were tried again.

The appeals court also said Manning's lawyer had been ineffective because he had failed to object to the informant's testimony.

Following that ruling, Missouri prosecutors said they were ready to try Manning again. But Jim Roberts, a spokesman for the Clay County prosecutors' office, said the case had grown too old to be retried.

Manning has filed a lawsuit against agents Robert Buchan and Gary Miller in federal court here, alleging that they framed him for the Cook County and Missouri crimes because he refused to continue informing for them.

False evidence charged

In particular, Manning's lawsuit alleges Buchan and Miller tried to help a witness identify Manning as one of the kidnappers, purposely chose Dye as an informant because he had lied during other cases, and then created false evidence to win a conviction.

Both agents have denied wrongdoing. They could not be reached Thursday.

"The only people to blame for this case is the FBI themselves," Manning said Thursday. "They did it to themselves. They fabricated this whole thing. They didn't have any evidence so they made everything up."

In a key ruling, a federal appeals court ruled last month that Manning can pursue his lawsuit, saying the agents are not immune from liability, as they had contended.

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A Tribune investigation of the Illinois capital punishment system highlighted Steve Manning's case. Read it at chicagotribune.com/manning.


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