DNA threatens strength of Lake County conviction
Drops of blood found at the murder scene didn't match the suspect or victim in the beating death of a respected 71-year-old Waukegan appliance store owner, but the jury was told that didn't clear the alleged killer, James Edwards.

A prosecutor explained the presence of an unidentified person's blood in Fred Reckling's store and car by arguing at the 1996 trial that store employees often cut themselves doing their jobs.

Faced with a written confession signed by Edwards, jurors deliberated briefly before finding him guilty of bashing Reckling over the head with a blunt object and sentencing him to life in prison.

But new DNA tests on the blood show it came from a man Edwards' defense lawyer says could be the real killer: a former Evanston resident arrested on armed robbery charges on the North Shore within weeks of Reckling's murder, court records show.

While Edwards is a repeat felon convicted of two other killings, the blood evidence raises new questions about Lake County justice and suggests another man may have escaped prosecution for murder.

His case becomes the fourth in which the Lake County state's attorney's office pushed a prosecution in spite of blood or semen evidence that appeared to point to someone other than the defendant. Not only did prosecutors discount the forensic evidence at trial, they fought post-trial efforts to have the DNA tested.

Edwards, who has served 15 years at the Menard Correctional Center, said recently in his first interview from prison that Lake County prosecutors relied too heavily on a confession he claims was coerced during 26 hours of questioning. Edwards hopes the blood evidence will clear him, and his lawyer plans to use it as he seeks to have the murder conviction thrown out.

DNA "is what solved this case," Edwards said. "If this DNA did not come out … in spite of my innocence, I'd be stuck."

As long as prosecutors favor confessions over forensic evidence, experts say, innocent people will face prison while the guilty go free.

"They haven't learned their lesson, despite numerous questionable confessions," said Steven Drizin, director of Northwestern University law school's Center on Wrongful Convictions. "There's a long pattern of this."

In a glaring example in Lake County, Jerry Hobbs spent five years in jail awaiting trial on charges he killed his 8-year-old daughter and her 9-year-old friend, a crime to which he had confessed. Prosecutors insisted that finding an unidentified man's semen in Laura Hobbs' body didn't clear her father, but they dropped the charges after the DNA was matched to a former Zion man convicted of a 2010 rape and charged with a 2009 murder. Hobbs was freed last year.

Lake County State's Attorney Michael Waller, who made the rare move of personally helping prosecute Edwards, did not respond to requests for comment. Prosecutors, who pushed unsuccessfully to have Edwards sentenced to death, have said in court that they are reinvestigating the case.

The name of the man linked by DNA to the crime scene is being kept secret by a judge's order, but court filings provide enough information that the Tribune determined his identity, which is not being used because he has not been charged. He could not be reached for comment.

Weeks after Reckling was found bludgeoned to death and robbed of $1,800 at his store on Dec. 9, 1994, the man, then 25, was arrested in connection with armed robberies in Wilmette and Evanston, according to police and court records. He was sentenced to 30 years, according to court filings.

The man was paroled in July 2009, and his sentence for armed robbery and unlawful restraint ended in March, said Sharyn Elman, spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Corrections.

Edwards, meanwhile, busies himself with books in his cell at the maximum-security prison in Chester, Ill. Speaking from behind glass, Edwards, a graying, erudite 62-year-old who uses terms like "autodidact" and "corpus delicti," voiced confidence that the DNA will clear him. He also acknowledged a criminal past reaching back to his teen years in New York City.

"I never claimed that I was some kind of upstanding citizen," he said.

Indeed, by the time he was charged with Reckling's murder, Edwards had spent 17 years locked up for beating an 83-year-old woman to death on Chicago's South Side in 1974. He denies he killed Cora Lee Young, though he acknowledges he can't prove his innocence through physical evidence. Prosecutors said they found her blood on his clothes; Edwards insisted police planted that evidence.

And his conviction in the Reckling murder is not the sole obstacle to his freedom. Edwards also has been sentenced to life in another killing, the 1974 shooting of a 60-year-old woman near Cleveland.