After the Latest Hearing: What's Next for Heidelberg?
A Peoria man convicted in 1970 for the murder of a sheriff’s deputy continues the fight to vacate his conviction. Peoria Public Radio’s Cass Herrington reports on 73-year-old Cleve Heidelberg’s legal efforts to gain freedom:
Heidelberg’s legal team is pursuing two pathways to vacate the 46-year-old murder conviction.
The first is a motion for a special prosecutor. Essentially, it’s a request for someone outside Peoria County to look at Heidelberg's case, for the sake of objectivity. That motion was granted in July. The court appointed the Illinois Attorney General's Office to review Heidelberg's case and issue a written report.
The second legal effort is a petition for post conviction relief. It’s Heidelberg’s way of asking the court to vacate his conviction in the interest of justice. It’s based on the argument that new evidence or legal issues exist that couldn’t have been raised on direct appeal.
That post-conviction filing is what caused a bit of a dust-up during last week’s hearing. Heidelberg’s attorney Don Jackson addressed the court:
“This is getting more confusing than in my judgment it should. All we want to do is get somebody with a fresh pair of eyes to look at this -- I mean, we’re talking about a person here, not paperwork," Jackson said.
The nearly 30 minutes of legal back and forth may also have caused Heidelberg some frustration:
“I’m being totally ignored here. The issues that’s involved are spinning out of control, and I desire to have some input into that,” Heidelberg said.
Heidelberg’s petition says issues, like an officer eavesdropping on a privileged legal conversation in 1970, should be used to reexamine his conviction. The question remains: who should be appointed to review the post conviction matter?
“Assistant Attorney General Nate, is there any reason why your office can not handle the post-conviction relief requested?," Judge Al Purham said.
"Well, Judge, our concern would be is that you have already appointed us to conduct an independent investigation,” Steven Nate said. Nate is the assistant attorney general who's assigned to review criminal prosecutions.
Tenth Circuit Judge Al Purham already determined the Peoria County State’s Attorney has a conflict of interest, which is why it’s now being looked at by the Illinois Attorney General.
But there are still a few other options. Several were brought up during the lengthy exchange last month. One suggestion was to assign it to the Appellate Prosecutor. But that office is linked to the Peoria County State’s Attorney, which again, poses a conflict of interest. That prompted Heidelberg’s other attorney Andy Hale to ask:
“Perhaps there’s another governmental entity that the court could consider as a suggestion, perhaps?,” Hale said.
Another possibility is to assign the case to a private firm. But the precedent for cases like this is to exhaust all government options before appointing a private entity because it’s costly. Appellate Prosecutor Matt Jones pointed to the recent high-profile case of Laquan McDonald in Chicago for guidance. Cook County ended up appointing a state’s attorney from a different county:
“They ended up finding Kane County to prosecute that case, on one hand, but they had to poll other entities before they were permitted to do that,” Jones said.
Judge Purham is expected to rule this week on who can fairly review Heidelberg’s case without a conflict of interest.
But there’s one curve ball that could derail this whole process. Halfway through the latest hearing, Heidelberg threw up his hands and demanded to represent himself. The move visibly shook his attorneys and his family. Attorney Andy Hale explains it like this:
“Forty-five years, you’ve been in prison for a crime you didn’t commit, you are not going to patient, you are not going to be logical. At some point, you just hit the tipping point, which he has hit multiple times, where you just can’t take it anymore,” Hale said.
Heidelberg has advocated for himself in prison for nearly half a century, filing his own legal paperwork all the way to the Illinois supreme court.
Judge Purham was quick to remind Heidelberg in the courtroom that this is the closest he’s ever been to getting a second look, and that’s thanks to his attorneys.
“This is not 1976. Your attorneys have made it farther than you have filing all your multiple motions. I mean, you are entitled to represent yourself pro se -- but (Heidelberg interrupted)-- no stop!,” Purham said.
Judge Purham continued and told Heidelberg that he’s entitled to represent himself, but he’ll have to live with the consequences.
Since that hearing, attorneys, family and friends have called and visited Cleve Heidelberg to encourage him to keep his legal team. Whether those conversations worked, and who will be appointed to review the post conviction relief matter could be determined at the hearing Wednesday.