Law students take second look at 1994 murder case

UChicago law students try to prove the innocence of a death row inmate they claim was framed by the police.

By Joy Crane

Seventeen years after his sentencing, death row inmate Stanley Jalowiec may clear his name, thanks to the efforts of the Law School’s Exoneration Project.

On April 11, 1996, Jalowiec, 41, was found guilty of the aggravated murder of Ronald Lally, an informant for the Elyria, Ohio police department. Jalowiec was sentenced to death. But new evidence uncovered by an investigation led by the Exoneration Project is challenging this original ruling.

In early 1994, Lally was last seen alive in a car with three other people. His body was found in a Cleveland cemetery January 29, the night before he was scheduled to testify against two Elyria drug kingpins, Raymond Smith and Smith’s son Danny. In the original trial, Smith and his other son Michael confessed that they were both in the car and aided in the murder of Lally. The third person convicted of occupying the car and participating in the murder was Jalowiec, another Elyria police informant.

Last Wednesday, in Jalowiec’s first evidentiary hearing since his conviction, Exoneration Project staff attorney Tara Thompson (J.D. ’03) presented exculpatory evidence to the county court in Elyria. The evidence, Thompson claims, not only proves Jalowiec’s innocence, but also points to a complicated frame-up on the part of a detective from the county police department.

“The goal is to be able to prove the constitutional claim that we are trying to show, which entitles our client to a new trial,” she said. Thompson hopes to show that because the prosecution purposefully withheld evidence during the original trial, the state must grant Jalowiec a new trial.

The Exoneration Project, now in its fifth year, comprises a team of UChicago Law students and outside attorneys who work to overturn wrongful convictions. To date, the not-for-profit organization has exonerated six individuals.

Jalowiec contacted the Exoneration Project litigation team directly, and his case was accepted by Law School students in 2011.  The project selects around four new cases annually and only accepts candidates it strongly believes to be innocent and then will investigate on their behalf.

“Post-conviction work can be kind of a murky process, and it helps to have attorneys that do nothing but work with those conviction clients,” said Charlotte Castillo, a third-year law student. Castillo has worked with the Exoneration Project for over two years. “It’s a good experience for everyone involved; you get to see a very different side of law,” she said.

The motion for a new trial last week focused on witnesses’ testimonies that claimed that county detective Alan Leiby had been previously informed that the third occupant of the car was not Jalowiec, but Danny Smith.

The defense alleges that it possesses new evidence that suggests that the Elyria police recorded Danny Smith’s confession to the murder in secret, according to the Exoneration Project’s website.

But Leiby testified that he was confident that Raymond Smith, Michael Smith, and Jalowiec were responsible for Lally’s murder. Leiby also denied intentionally destroying witness interview tapes during the hearing, according to The Morning Journal.

Judge Virgil Sinclair put the case under advisement and requested oral argument briefs from both sides by December 30, after which the struggle for a new trial will resume.

Despite the delay, Thompson welcomed the opportunity to keep the case open.

“The one thing about these cases is that they take a long time to resolve. With the Jalowiec case, we are obviously far from being finished,” she said.

“We believe that there is evidence that will show his innocence that we weren’t able to show on Tuesday, and that there is evidence that we would like to present in the future before this court or another court. Let’s hear the truth; let’s hear what really happened in Stan’s case.”