During an interrogation that stretched for more than 24 hours, James Edwards confessed to three murders, Waukegan detectives said, enough to make him a serial killer.
He was convicted and sentenced to life in prison in two of the slayings — the shooting of a woman near Cleveland in 1974 and the bludgeoning of a businessman in Waukegan in 1994.
Because Edwards knew details of the Waukegan murder "only the killer would know," prosecutors argued at trial, his account of the slaying had to be true.
Lake County prosecutors were wrong, they now say.
Edwards' sentence in Illinois was wiped away last year after prosecutors charged another man allegedly linked by DNA to the crime. But Edwards still isn't free. Although he admitted to the Ohio murder during the same interrogation that produced a vivid confession that Lake County authorities say was false, little has happened in his Ohio case.
The discovery that Edwards gave an apparently false confession containing accurate details about the Waukegan slaying suggests he was fed facts by the detectives who interrogated him, a common phenomenon in false confessions, experts on criminal defense and wrongful convictions said.
Though Edwards, 64, has a violent record even beyond the two murder convictions, the justice system's portrayal of him as an itinerant multiple murderer has been called into question by a confession local prosecutors now say is a mixture of fact and fiction. Ohio authorities must immediately seek the truth, said Steven Drizin, legal director of Northwestern University's Center on Wrongful Convictions.
"The victim's family in that case have a right to know whether the (murderer) … is behind bars or still on the streets," Drizin said.
In a visiting room overlooking inmates circulating outside Stateville Correctional Center near Joliet, Edwards — a voluble man who has spent roughly half his life in prison — said he's confident he'll go free before he dies. The acknowledgment by prosecutors that his Waukegan confession was false shows police coerced the whole statement, he said.
"Those were details that only the police could have known, in addition to the killer," he said.
Edwards' lawyers are preparing to use the revelations from Lake County to challenge his Ohio case, but Ohio prosecutors learned of questions about his interrogation only when called by the Tribune, said Joseph Frolik, a Cuyahoga County prosecutor's office spokesman. He declined to comment on details of the case but said the office was receptive to putting it before an internal review panel prosecutors are setting up.
"Just based on the fact that the Waukegan confession has been discredited, that would certainly suggest that this would be a prime candidate for the review process," he said.
Ohio police officers did find other potentially damning evidence — a thumbprint matching Edwards' on the inside of the window of the car containing the body, police reports show. Experts noted, though, that a case based on a fingerprint is weaker than one based on a print and a confession. The print match was made after Edwards confessed, and Drizin pointed to research suggesting that forensic experts such as fingerprint examiners can be swayed by other evidence indicating guilt or innocence.
The Ohio conviction is not Edwards' only problem. He's serving a 60-year sentence in Illinois for an armed robbery he committed in Waukegan with a lighter resembling a gun, the crime that spurred his arrest and interrogation in 1996. He doesn't contest his guilt in the robbery, and the Department of Corrections projects his discharge date as 2029.
But the apparent false confession is key to his hope of seeing his sentence reduced. At his robbery sentencing, Lake County Judge Christopher Starck, who also presided over the Waukegan murder case, noted Edwards' conviction in that killing before giving him the lengthy robbery sentence.
Edwards argued — and experts agreed — that the punishment should be reconsidered, given he's been exonerated of the murder.
Edwards' lawyers said they'll seek a sentence reduction, but Lake County State's Attorney Mike Nerheim said he'll contest that because of Edwards' criminal past, including yet another murder conviction.
A troubled past
Raised in New York City's Harlem borough, Edwards' arrest record stretches to childhood, he said. Early on, he said, he joined the Five Percent Nation, a Nation of Islam offshoot, and took on another name by which he's been known, Divine God Epps.
In 1974, he came to Chicago and met Cora Lee Young, 83, according to court records. Days later Young was found beaten to death, and Edwards, who had her blood on his clothes, was charged with murder, court records show.