He Got 80 Years for Murder Because of a ‘Hero’ Cop. Then Witnesses Recanted.
A yearlong investigation strongly points to then-teenager Robert Johnson’s innocence—and Chicago police misconduct as a major contributing factor to his conviction.
A slight, skinny teenager, Robert Johnson was fast asleep at his grandmother’s house, a brick two-flat on the South Side of Chicago, when he woke up to the door bell. Then the pounding started.
It was April 1996, and Detective James O’Brien—a towering, six-foot-five, 260-pound cop—had arrived with a crew, demanding to talk to the high school student. When Mary Robinson, Johnson’s grandmother, refused to let them in, the officers slammed on the door, she recalled.
“He was nothing but a child,” Robinson said in an interview. “That’s all he was but 16.”
Johnson had been living with his grandmother for the past six years. Before that, an aunt kept him. Before that, he was removed from his mother’s care as a toddler. A long Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) history and juvenile record of behavioral issues followed him into his teens. At one point, he couch-surfed away from his grandmother’s home and stopped attending school.
But by that morning in 1996, Johnson had moved back home and re-enrolled in school. He was determined to get his life on track.
According to O’Brien, who later testified against Johnson at trial, the cops were at his grandmother’s home to arrest the teen in connection with the murder of Eddie Binion, a friend of Johnson’s who had been shot in the head two days earlier.
“Get your coat, let’s go!” Johnson remembers O’Brien yelling. He grabbed it from his bedroom before officers rushed him out of the house while his grandmother was in the other room.
He hasn’t been back since.
Behind bars for 24 years, Johnson is only a third of the way through an 80-year sentence for a murder, home invasion, and robbery conviction. Prosecutors did not present any physical evidence against Johnson at trial. Nor a confession. Nor any third-party eyewitnesses who could identify him. Rather, Johnson went down on the word of one of his co-defendants, who had taken a plea deal in exchange for his testimony.
But a mountain of new evidence, the result of a yearlong investigation by the Invisible Institute published in partnership with The Daily Beast, strongly points to Johnson’s innocence—and police misconduct as a major contributing factor to his conviction.
That Chicago, a city with a long history of corrupt and racist policing, would have wrongfully convicted a teenage black boy in the 1990s is not, in and of itself, shocking. But even as police reform and Black Lives Matter have gained currency in recent years, highlighted locally by outrage over the killing of Laquan McDonald in 2014, high-ranking officers with violent pasts have continued to enjoy long, decorated careers. Meanwhile, people like Johnson languish in prison.
Listen to Robert Johnson and his loved ones discuss his early life and experience with the criminal justice system:
In O’Brien’s case, not even ties to the head of a notorious torture squad were enough to shine a light on a record rife with claims of abuse, coercion, and more. Through an attorney, O’Brien declined to comment for this story.
At least 80 percent of exonerations in Chicago’s Cook County have involved police misconduct, with black Chicagoans representing four-fifths of those wrongly convicted. That’s compared to an estimated one third of exonerations across the country being tainted by so-called “bad cops,” according to a preliminary data analysis by the National Registry of Exonerations.
The Invisible Institute has sought to discern patterns in these statistics. Working with a data science software and consultancy company called Civis Analytics, we created a database of hundreds of handwritten letters from potentially wrongly-convicted prisoners, and cross-referenced them with Cook County exoneration records. The Chicago-based project has produced an algorithm using natural language processing that helps identify police and prosecutors, with the hope of unearthing trends buried within prisoners’ cries for help.
Johnson was the project’s first test case for further investigation last year. The search tool linked multiple officers from Johnson’s case to existing exonerations. A lead detective in the case, O’Brien, also appeared in a letter from another prisoner in 2017. The findings, though preliminary, helped to create a line of inquiry to further probe Johnson’s innocence claim.
Meanwhile, he turned 40 in an Illinois prison last July.
“Been over half of my life,” Johnson said in an interview at Hill Correctional Center in Galesburg, Illinois. “It’s so much of my life, so much of my life."
Around 11 p.m. on April 14, 1996, four men entered the home of Eddie “Jay” Binion—a known drug dealer who had cornered the neighborhood heroin market—with plans to rob him, according to trial testimony. Two of the men brandished guns and wore black masks over their faces, police records noted.
Pointing a gun at Binion’s head, one of the intruders demanded money and accused him of lying about how much he had in the apartment. The others helped round up Binion’s girlfriend and two other couples that rented rooms in the apartment into a small back bedroom. There, they shouted at Binion to keep his head down.
One of the masked intruders then proceeded to shoot a kneeling Binion in the back of the head in front of five witnesses before the group took off with the drugs and money.
The next day, police made their first arrest: Jimmy Slaughter, a friend of Robert Johnson’s. Slaughter led police to two other men: Fernando Gilbert and Willie Daugherty. Daugherty, in turn, pointed police to Robert Johnson, whom the group only knew peripherally, though (with the exception of Daugherty) they did live in the same neighborhood and belonged (along with Daugherty) to the same street gang, according to Johnson.
“I don’t know nothing, I was with my grandma,” Johnson said he repeatedly told police.
His story has remained the same for almost 24 years. He was at home sleeping, then his grandmother, Robinson, asked him to go pick up some chicken for dinner. When Johnson returned from the restaurant, Robinson asked him to pick up some pop and bread. Johnson headed out for the corner grocery store and was gone for a few minutes, according to Johnson and Robinson, before being home for the night. Johnson’s father, who lived in an upstairs apartment at the residence, also remembers him leaving and returning with the groceries.
But under their own police questioning, as memorialized in statements with prosecutors, Slaughter, Gilbert and Daugherty all pointed to Johnson as either the shooter or having participated in the crime—later accepting plea deals for dramatically reduced sentences.
“You will never see these streets again,” Johnson remembered police telling him after obtaining statements from all three co-defendants.
The problem, according to new accounts from some of those same co-defendants and their families, is that they were pressured to blame Johnson and save themselves.
Gilbert’s mother, Marnette Davis, said in an interview that she remembers a “big time lawyer,” a white man in a suit, coming up to her in a courtroom and threatening her about the plea agreement. According to Davis, the man told her that if Gilbert didn’t sign the deal, he would “put him in front of an all-white jury and he would get 90 years.”
A police report documented a single eyewitness pointing to Johnson in a lineup, and that woman remembers insisting to officers that she was too drunk and high to positively identify anyone. She told the Invisible Institute that the officers brought her Burger King “to sober her up,” yet she does not remember whether she selected Johnson or not. This lineup evidence was not presented at Johnson’s murder trial; the witness told the Invisible Institute she didn’t want to testify because she was unsure of the identification and feared retaliation.
Binion’s girlfriend, Chauna Wilkins, an eyewitness who was staying in the drug house at the time of the crime, testified for the state. She only identified Daugherty as one of the intruders. And although she had met Johnson a few times, she said she couldn’t recognize the perpetrators’ voice to know if he was among them. (Wilkins did not respond to a request for comment for this story.)
The state’s star witness against Johnson, though, was Daugherty. Having cut his deal, he provided what was arguably the most substantive evidence against the teen. Multiple attempts to contact Daugherty, who was released on parole in 2003, for this story were not successful. When reached for comment, Gilbert declined to discuss his involvement with the case.
After four hours of deliberation, a mostly white jury reached a guilty verdict. Despite their swift decision, some jurors now admit they had serious doubts.
“It didn’t sit well with me,” said Ronald Mockus, one of the white jurors, who still remembers the case. He said he didn’t think the evidence that came out during the trial proved Johnson’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. But when he spoke up about his uncertainty during jury deliberation, he felt pressured to deliver a guilty verdict. “I think it was all BS, ” he said.
Martin Loughlin, another white juror, wasn’t confident in the verdict at the time, either. He didn’t think there was enough evidence, but voted guilty nonetheless. Loughlin justified his choice at the time, thinking, If he was guilty, I would hate to see in a future newspaper article that he killed someone else.
The prosecutor who argued the case, John Kirby, became a Cook County judge the year after Johnson’s conviction and has retained that position. Kirby did not respond to requests for comment.
Richard Devine, the state’s attorney overseeing Johnson’s case, later became embroiled in the controversy surrounding former police commander Jon Burge. The notorious cop was accused of torturing more than 120 mostly black men over two decades, many of whom gave false confessions and were wrongfully convicted. The private practice firm where Devine once worked represented Burge, and the attorney appeared for him in court on one occasion, he recalled in an interview.
Devine’s office pushed back against prisoners’ claims of torture when he was a prosecutor, but he more recently sought to distance himself from the ex-cop’s legacy.
“I really have no ties with Jon Burge, and I think it’s important to focus on individual cases and look at the evidence in each case," he said. “It’s not a simple situation.”
As for Johnson’s conviction, Devine said that while he did not remember the case, “certainly if the evidence isn’t there, it should be handled.”
Among the cops who came up under Burge was O’Brien, the detective who arrested Johnson.
By 2003, Daugherty had radically changed his story about Robert Johnson.
He penned an affidavit in January of that year saying explicitly that Johnson was not involved in the murder. About a month before that, he had reached out to Johnson’s grandmother in a letter. “I want to apologize for what happen, and I promise when I get out, I’m going to get a lawyer to get this took care of,” Daugherty wrote in a letter to Robinson reviewed by The Invisible Institute.
Two years earlier, Slaughter had changed his tune, too, sending Robinson an unnotarized affidavit absolving Johnson of any part in the murder. Johnson sought to overturn his conviction on his own in 2009, which an appellate lawyer later amended for him in his most recent 2014 appeal, submitting a new, notarized affidavit from Slaughter that said: “Robert Johnson took no part, nor was he present and had no knowledge of the crime that was committed.”
Daugherty’s recantation accompanied Slaughter’s in the appeal. But because the two men failed to provide details about their own involvement in the crime, or about their accomplices, a judge ruled in 2017 their testimony wasn’t enough to vindicate Johnson.
“Unless Daugherty were to attest that he was present at the scene of the crime, can identify everyone involved, and is willing and able to testify as to that fact before this court, his affidavit is wholly insufficient….” Judge Thomas Gainer wrote in his order. “Slaughter’s affidavit suffers from the same fatal flaw as Daugherty.”
And so Johnson waited in prison, mostly hopeless.
Then, in September 2018, a man in the neighborhood named Tramaine Taylor was shot and killed. His death has since prompted a new wave of people—who said they were no longer in fear of someone with a reputation for violence—to come forward and name him as Eddie Binion’s murderer.
“I’m not glad that Tramaine Taylor lost his life, even though I’m here for a crime he did,” Johnson said. “But had he not have died, nobody would’ve never told the truth.”
Among those who now say Taylor was the real perpetrator is his own mother, Barbara Taylor.
After her son Tramaine’s murder, Taylor sent a text message to a member of Johnson’s family: "My son is dead, a man is [sic] prisoned because of his actions and I’m just finding out the truth behind it and I’m angry at my son for it LORD HELP ME…”
Taylor and Johnson spoke on the phone in December 2018, during which she sobbed and apologized to him, he recalled. Taylor also wrote Johnson a letter: “...It hurts me to know what my son did and even more that a innocent person got blamed for it. ...I still can’t believe it. But I’ve talked to many people who claimed they heard that he had done it and was afraid to tell on him for fear of repercussion.”
When the Invisible Institute spoke with Taylor, she said that after Tramaine’s murder, she learned of his role in the Binion case from one of her other sons, to whom Tramaine had apparently confessed. Despite a long criminal history, including a 2000 attempted murder charge, Tramaine largely evaded accountability for alleged violence around the neighborhood.
Now, Barbara Taylor hopes to help Johnson win his freedom. “He is innocent,” Taylor said in an interview. “It’s not going to bring my son back, but I just feel like no one should be incarcerated for something that they didn’t do.”
At the time of Binion’s murder in 1996, Taylor learned of Johnson’s arrest because she was dating his father, also named Robert. Taylor also remembers police coming to her house in search of her son, Tramaine. But, she said, officers weren’t able to locate him; he had skipped town, after telling her he had been involved in a home invasion as a look-out.
Now, she feels angry at her son for letting another man take the fall. “I’ve wanted to go up over to his grave, take a belt and whoop the damn dirt,” Taylor said.
As part of this investigation, reporters also spoke with five more people who said Tramaine Taylor was the real killer, not Johnson: NaTasha Tyler, one of Taylor’s girlfriends at the time of the crime; another ex-girlfriend, Valerie Allen, who is also Robert Johnson’s sister; Eddy “Shawn” Maholmes, one of Taylor’s best friends; Evelyn Binion, the murder victim’s sister; and Jimmy Slaughter, one of Johnson’s co-defendants whose previous recantation in 2014 did not include this new evidence.
“He killed him,” Slaughter said of Taylor in a recent interview. “He shot a lot of people.”
Slaughter also said Taylor was the actual shooter around the time of the incident, according to his brother, Joseph Slaughter. “The body list is long,” Joseph Slaughter said. “He was a monster in the neighborhood. People were very frightened of him.”
The name “Tramaine” was documented twice over the course of Binion’s murder investigation, the police file shows.
The first was courtesy of Johnson himself, who told police during an interrogation that, while on his way to the grocery store, he saw Taylor and the three co-defendants walking near Binion’s house on the night of the crime.
The second reference to “Tramaine” was by Evelyn Binion, the victim’s sister, who gave police his name. But when Binion briefly testified for the defense at trial, she provided only a limited account about her brother and Johnson’s friendship. According to Johnson, his attorney interviewed Binion prior to trial, and she told him that she believed Taylor was responsible for her brother’s death. In an interview about this case, Johnson’s public defender, Kulmeet Galhotra, said Taylor was “always at [the] periphery]” and never investigated, so he could not bring his name up in court. (However, the name “Tramaine Taylor” was disclosed to prospective jurors before trial to identify any potential ties or conflicts during jury selection.)
When police talked to Binion, they asked who was responsible for her brother’s murder by showing her two pictures: one of Johnson, and one of Taylor, she recalled. When she said “Tramaine”—she had heard around the neighborhood that Taylor was bragging about “his first kill” and saying her brother “screamed like a little bitch” when he shot him—officers told her no, it was Johnson, Binion added.
“They didn’t want me to say what I knew, they wanted me to say what they wanted me to say,” Binion said.
But according to Binion, she also told the police a lot more than that: She told them where to find physical evidence. Soon after the crime, a man in the neighborhood who went by “Lil Bit” had tearfully told her that the men who shot her brother had dumped a gun, money, and bloody sneakers at his home. The bloody sneakers had ended up on a “wire” in the neighborhood, and she told police where to find them.
If this conversation took place, police did not document it. Still, Binion insisted, she later heard that police had taken pictures of the shoes on the wire.
What she didn’t tell police: When she saw one of Taylor’s girlfriends walking around wearing her brother’s gold necklace that was stolen during the murder, she beat her up and took the necklace back, she said. Binion withheld this account from police because she was afraid of getting charged with assault, she added.
But for those who say they have long known about Tramaine’s involvement in the crime, his death has liberated them.
“Now that he’s not walking around, I think people gonna be more willing to help me,” Johnson said.
If Tramaine Taylor had a reputation for violence in the neighborhood, James O’Brien, a lead detective in Johnson’s case, had by the mid 1990s already started to develop a reputation for targeting black boys.
The Invisible Institute has connected O’Brien to at least 59 allegations of physical abuse, torture, coercion, and manipulating evidence, almost all of them of young, black, and brown men. The median age of O’Brien’s alleged victims in 42 of those cases was 18. (We could not confirm the ages of the other 17.)
At least 12 of them have been acquitted after judges found evidence of coercion credible and suppressed confessions. Six others have been exonerated—one by governor’s commutation, others by way of DNA evidence, dropped charges, or overturned conviction—some after spending more than a decade or two in prison. Six more have been determined by the state’s Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission to have credible claims of torture, and are sitting in prison while they await new court hearings. O’Brien has also been named in at least 17 civil lawsuits, which collectively cost the city more than $7.3 million.
In fact, after O’Brien joined the Chicago Police Department in October 1986, it didn’t take all that long for him to begin racking up excessive force complaints as part of a tactical unit on the city’s South Side. Between May and November 1989, O’Brien was named in five civilian complaints. Two different men accused O’Brien of hitting them with a flashlight. A mother said O’Brien and a partner pointed guns at her children, verbally abused them, and pulled one of them off their grandmother’s porch.
The following year, O’Brien was promoted to detective. In August 1990, after a month of training, he was assigned to Area Three violent crimes. His commander was Jon Burge. It was barely a month into his time under Burge before O’Brien began torturing black teenagers into false confessions, according to testimony in two separate cases.
Cortez Brown, 19, was arrested in September 1990 and interrogated by O’Brien and two partners regarding two fatal shootings from that summer. Brown later testified that two of the detectives, including a “tall, white guy with dark hair, stocky-like”—fitting other complainants’ description of O’Brien—punched him in the chest and hit him with a flashlight until he confessed to the murders. He also said they denied his requests for a lawyer.
O’Brien and his partners denied that they abused Brown. The judge, Earl Strayhorn, Jr., sided with them.
“It was the defendant’s word against three officers,” he wrote in a sworn affidavit years later. But if he had known about O’Brien and the other detectives’ pattern of abuse, he might have ruled differently, he wrote.
It only took another year for that pattern to begin to emerge.
In September 1991, 13-year-old Marcus Wiggins and five other teens were arrested for a neighborhood murder. On the way to the police station, O’Brien allegedly hit Wiggins with a flashlight, according to a civil lawsuit.
“Detective O’Brien, he hit me and he assisted in holding my hands down,” Wiggins told the Invisible Institute, with a stutter he has never overcome, exacerbated by the torture he said he suffered.
“I was getting the electric shock,” Wiggins said of the device common in Burge torture cases. (Court records and contemporaneous news reports indicate another Area 3 detective operated the electric shock device and that O’Brien left the room at some point.)
Under duress, all of the teens confessed. Wiggins was tried as a juvenile but five of the other teenagers were tried as adults. But Judge Strayhorn—the same judge as in Cortez Brown’s case—threw out the confessions, finding that the “oppressive atmosphere” in the police station made the confessions involuntary and, therefore, inadmissible.
“That was kidnapping,” Wiggins’ mother Carolyn Johnson said of O’Brien allegedly ripping her son out of her arms on the street. After the torture, she remembered finding her son in the fetal position, sucking his thumb, shaking.
Five years later, Robert Johnson was hauled away by O’Brien and his colleagues.
Burge, the notorious alleged torture boss, was fired in 1993. But despite growing evidence that the torture did not end with Burge’s career, O’Brien and many of the other detectives who have worked under Burge evaded accountability.
Three other men in O’Brien’s detective class have also racked up scores of torture allegations and overturned convictions: Kenneth Boudreau and John Halloran (O’Brien’s longtime partners) and a cop named Reynaldo Guevara. Notably, Guevara has been accused by dozens of people of railroading them to prison, including 20 now exonerated.
“I don’t know what the fuck was in the water at the detective training that they went to,” said attorney Russell Ainsworth, who has represented O’Brien complainants in lawsuits.
Reached for comment, a now retired Boudreau called claims from the state’s Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission false, and said that complaints were “made by desperate men” who saw it as “the only way to obtain money.” Halloran and Guevara could not be reached for comment for this story.
But while Boudreau, Halloran, and Guevara have all been the subject of extensive newspaper articles and investigations on Chicago policing (which featured allegations they’ve either denied or declined to comment on), O’Brien has flown mostly under the radar. His reputation has been known to a handful of civil rights attorneys, but not the general public. In 2017, in fact, multiple Chicago news outlets spotlighted him in a “Heroes Honored” story.
What the four officers share is that they all retired from the department of their own accord, and in 2019 collected pensions of more than $80,000 each.
Also: when asked under oath about claims of torture, O’Brien, Halloran and Guevara have each repeatedly pleaded the Fifth, exerting their right against self-incrimination.
As for Johnson, he is eager to go forward with his next appeal. Last November, the Exoneration Project, a free legal clinic at the University of Chicago Law School affiliated with the Innocence Network, accepted his case. And while he laments the decades he has lost behind bars, he also understands the parallel tragedy both the Taylor and Binion families have experienced.
“I was really starting to lose it, lose hope,” Johnson said. “I just want to move on with my life.”
With reporting by Diana Akmakjian. Audio segment produced by Erisa Apantaku.