Late last year we received an email from Cheryle Abul-Husn of Whiting, Indiana that said, with devastating simplicity: “I would like to tell you the story of my grandson, arrested at 15, serving a 60-year sentence for a murder he did not commit.” Cheryle’s grandson Martin Anthony Villalon Jr., who goes by Anthony, currently resides in the Wabash Correctional Facility in Indiana. He is 20 years old. In conversations with Cheryle she would tell me, “I used to believe in the system too.” Now she has a hard time forgiving herself for that confidence. Anthony’s case was riddled with issues: the DNA recovered from the scene didn’t match his, the jury selection was inappropriate, and in the end he was convicted based on conflicting eye-witness testimony from confirmed gang-members. The Innocence Project, which to date has exonerated 305 persons from wrongful convictions, states that “eyewitness misidentification is the single greatest cause of wrongful convictions nationwide.” Cheryle is in contact with the Innocence Project and it is her singular goal to see her grandson exonerated. She says, “my grandson is innocent. I can only hope… and keep trying. I won’t stop telling his story.”
“In August 2008 my daughter received a phone call that would change our lives forever. The officer on the other end told my daughter to bring her “cold blooded, murdering, horrible excuse of a human being of a son” to the Hammond, Indiana police station. My daughter immediately called me. She was confused and scared. She could not understand why the police officer had said the things he did about her son, my grandson, Martin Anthony Villalon Jr. Anthony, as he is called by everyone, was 15 years old at the time. We didn’t understand what was going on, we figured it was an epic mistake. I immediately told her to call a lawyer. She called a local lawyer and he called the police station. He told us Anthony was going to be charged with murder. Our entire family had a vacation planned for the next few days. The lawyer said it was okay to leave town and go on the vacation. We were supposed to take Anthony down to the Hammond police station once we returned from the vacation. That was Labor Day weekend. We were worried but we knew it was a mistake and that once we spoke to the police it would all be straightened out.
We were so wrong.
When we returned home from our vacation, I drove Anthony to the police station. Our lawyer and the rest of the family met us there. We thought we would all be going to lunch and talking about what a horrible mistake it had all been. Little did we know we would not be able to hug or touch our child for five months, and then that it would take place at the funeral of his other grandmother. And then that it would be another two years before we could hug and kiss him again, after he was transferred to the adult prison. His little sister was able to see him at the funeral and then not again for two years. No sibling visitation at the county jail.
[superquote]No physical evidence connecting Anthony to the crime was recovered. The DNA recovered from the dead boy wasn’t my grandson’s.[/superquote]
My grandson is innocent. Around 4:49 on August 22, 2008 15-year-old John Shoulders was murdered in Whiting, Indiana. No physical evidence connecting Anthony to the crime was recovered. The DNA recovered from the dead boy wasn’t my grandson’s. In September 2008 the police conducted interrogations with two young gang members who claimed that Anthony and another boy, Prevaun McDaniel, had admitted involvement in the murder [Prevaun was later found not guilty in a separate trial]. These two young men were picked up in the middle of the night, taken to the police station, and interrogated. They later stated on the stand that the police had told them that if they didn’t say Anthony told them he did the murder, they would be charged with the crime. Other boys were also picked up by the police and then refused to sign a statement saying that Anthony had told them he had done the crime. One boy had to get a lawyer so that the police would stop harassing him. Minutes before the murder, John and a friend had been walking together near a known gang house where they stopped and spoke to someone at that house. The “gang mother,” who lived at the house, claimed that Anthony had come by earlier that day at told her that he was going to beat John up. The friend who was with John at the time of his murder was given a photo lineup with Anthony’s picture in it. He did not pick out Anthony. In fact, he stated the boy was tall and white, with a spider tattoo. He stated the boy was about 5’8. Anthony was barely 5’0 and is Hispanic. The witness was asked three times and eventually was asked, point blank, “Which Hispanic kid was it?” and he said, “For the third time: the boy was white.”
Michael, yet another other boy in the case, worked out a deal that he would come forward and say that Anthony and the co-defendant, Prevaun, had said, “we did it.” He was picked up on assault and battery. He later stated in court that the police had not given him everything that he had been promised. He even tried to hire Anthony’s lawyer to fight the police because he believed he had been tricked into making the statements he had made. Lawyers and prosecutors make deals with children to incriminate other children. This whole practice of making deals is disastrous. Horrific.
If you’d asked me any other night where Anthony was, I might not have known. But August 22, 2008 was different. That night, our entire family was going to a dinner show in Chicago to celebrate two birthdays: Anthony’s mother Debbie, and his aunt. Anthony and his family attended and a picture was taken at the show that proves he was there. The people working at the restaurant remembered us because Anthony’s uncle took part in the show. We also got a copy of our reservation, and our food orders. The dinner was at 7:00 but we had to be at the place by 6:00 to get seated. There were a total of 11 of us. The plan was to leave my home by 5:00. Before arriving at my house my daughter called me several times and at one point asked me to speak to Anthony about getting dressed. I did speak to Anthony. Anthony’s aunt was with Anthony and he showed her some things on his computer. A neighbor was willing to testify he had seen Anthony get home from school. He also had a teacher who lived across the street who he had spoken to when he got home– they both had walked home about the same time. Debbie was worried that we would be late and asked if they could come over right away. I said yes. They arrived at my house between 4:30 and 4:45.
[superquote]We were in shock. We wanted the Judge to look at all the things that had gone wrong. We wanted her to do the right thing.[/superquote] My home is quite a distance from where John was murdered. There was no way possible Anthony could be sitting in my home or in the car at the same time he was murdering someone. John was murdered at 4:49. We were on our way by 5:00. We have ample evidence of all of this, but our lawyer never used any of it. At the trial we had six people waiting to testify to his location that evening. Myself, my daughters, their spouses… We never got to testify. When the prosecution rested our lawyer came out of the courtroom and asked my daughter, her husband, and her ex-husband, to come with him. They went to a room at the other end of the hall. When they returned my daughter told us we were not going to testify. We began to cry, we begged, we pleaded with our lawyer to let us testify. He looked at us and said simply, “it’s done.” We pleaded with him, “What do you mean it’s done?” We had been waiting the whole trial to testify to where Anthony had been when this horrible crime took place. We were in shock. We wanted the Judge to look at all the things that had gone wrong. We wanted her to do the right thing.
[superquote]This is a harsh sentence for any kid but even more horrible for an innocent one.[/superquote] The jury was out for less than six hours. They found Anthony guilty of murder. Before the sentencing we wanted our lawyer to bring to the Judge’s attention some problems with the jury. Our lawyer said don’t “piss off the Judge or Anthony will get 60 years.” He said our best bet was to go in and beg for 45 years. How do you beg for 45 years for your child who is innocent? We brought up the jury tampering, the jury misconduct, we brought up everything that had taken place and no one cared. Anthony was given 60 years. He is now in an adult prison where he is trying to survive. Anthony was 16 when he went to the adult prison. He is 20 now but he seems much younger. This is a harsh sentence for any kid but even more horrible for an innocent one.”
[written in collaboration with the author]
Read Part 2 of Cheryle’s story HERE.
If you are a family with a child in the system and you are seeking advice or assistance, please contact Justice For Families, They can be reached via email at zachary AT justice4families DOT org or via phone at (510) 268 6941. Justice For Families is a national alliance of local organizations that can provide emotional and logistical support for court hearings, advocacy support to enable families to obtain the best services for their loved ones, and engage families in policy campaigns to change systemic failures in the juvenile justice system. Another excellent resource is the Campaign for Youth Justice’s Family Resource Center, which offers guidance, valuable information, and opportunities for advocacy.
If you are a family that would like to share your story on the blog, please email us at: firstname.lastname@example.org