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Timing of evidence destruction is key in Peoria rape case now before Illinois Supreme Court

Illinois Supreme Court Building

A man who says Peoria Police made it impossible for him to prove his innocence by destroying evidence in a rape case pleaded his case before the Illinois Supreme Court on Tuesday.

Andrew Grant of Peoria was charged with criminal sexual assault of a relative in 2004. He was convicted and sentenced to 14 years in prison. In 2013, Grant filed a motion to perform DNA testing on a single hair found in the victim’s vagina. At that point, he discovered that the evidence in question no longer existed.

Peoria Police collected the hair from the alleged victim’s rape kit in 2004 but destroyed it three years later. Grant was still serving his prison sentence at that time.

The early disposal of evidence, while supposedly done in accordance with Peoria Police Department’s evidence policies, violated state law. Evidence must be retained for the entirety of a person's prison sentence.

The Third District Appellate Court sided with Grant in 2020, vacating his conviction and remanding the case for a new trial. The state appealed to the Illinois Supreme Court, which heard oral arguments in the case Tuesday.

Grant's lawyers say without the hair he can never prove his innocence through DNA testing, therefore rendering the entire trial process unfair.

Assistant Attorney General Nicholas Moeller, representing the state, argued otherwise.

“There isn’t a good way to remedy the fact that there’s just no way to test the hair anymore. And it’s all done based on speculation that there is some chance that this one hair—that the defendant did not choose to test at the time of his trial—now may have been exonerating,” said Moeller in closing remarks.

Grant's lawyer Amy Kemp told justices the error in evidence preservation must lead to a legal remedy, contending that Grant’s conviction should be vacated and a new trial be granted.

“Certainly it would be preferable that the hair still exists, could be tested, and could be used to prove actual innocence, but because of the state’s unlawful actions, that’s not an option,” argued Kemp.

Prosecutors say speculating about evidence not tested does not mean Grant would be exonerated.

Ultimately, the Supreme Court is expected to decide whether to affirm the appellate court decision or reverse it and uphold Grant's original conviction.

A Supreme Court opinion is expected this spring.

Maggie Strahan is a graduate student in the Public Affairs Reporting program at the University of Illinois.