Murder charges against a man who spent 23 years in the Illinois Department of Corrections have been dropped.
John W. Horton, 41, stood in front of Winnebago County Chief Judge Joe McGraw Wednesday, October 4, and heard the words he has been fighting for since the day he was sent to prison for life: "case dismissed."
McGraw's words came after a special prosecutor decided not to retry Horton for the 1993 murder of Arthur Castaneda, who was shot dead on September 19, 1993, inside a Rockford, Illinois, McDonald's restaurant. The Illinois Court of Appeals vacated Horton's conviction in 2016 because police failed to disclose information about the crime they gleaned from another man.
That man is Clifton F. English Jr., Horton's cousin.
Days after Castaneda was shot, English was arrested in connection with another killing. However, because Horton, then 17, had signed a written confession, English was not considered in the Castaneda shooting. English later confessed to killing Castaneda but the confession was not disclosed to Horton's lawyers.
"I'm blessed. I'm truly blessed. I'm grateful," Horton told the Rockford Register Star outside the Winnebago County Courthouse after Wednesday's hearing.
Steven Drizin, who represents Brendan Dassey, worked on Horton's case and shared a sentiment familiar to Making a Murderer fans around the world.
"When you question teenagers... as if they were adults, you greatly run the risk of false confessions," the Northwestern University law professor said.Horton also claimed his confession was coerced.
English has not been charged in Castaneda's death. He is currently serving 66 years in prison for first-degree murder in another case, and will be eligible for parole in 2026.
Special prosecutor Charles Colburn said the decision not to retry Horton came after reviewing the appellate court ruling. He said the state cannot just "give it a shot," in terms of bringing new charges.
"You have to have a reasonable belief that the charges can be substantiated," Colburn said. "I was somebody who could look at it with new eyes."
Wednesday's announcement was the second major step in Horton's case this year. The first came in February, when McGraw freed him on a $50,000 bond while prosecutors contemplated retrial.
In addition to Joshua Tepfer from Drizin's Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth, lawyers from the Exoneration Project at the University of Chicago Law School worked on Horton's appeal.
Prosecutors have not announced whether charges will be brought against Clifton English in the death of Arthur Castaneda.
In Brendan Dassey's case, Drizin, Laura Nirider, and Robert Dvorak are waiting for a decision whether a seven-judge panel has affirmed a federal magistrate's ruling that the then 16-year-old was coerced when he was questioned by police in the 2005 death of Teresa Halbach. If the court affirms the decision, the state will again have 90 days to retry Dassey or release him. If the court reverses, Dassey's only option, aside from starting over with another appeal, would be a petition in the United States Supreme Court.
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