Early Saturday morning, police and property management found Cleve Heidelberg dead in his Peoria apartment after a friend failed to reach him. No foul play is suspected.
“He died a free man. I don’t care what legal technicalities are pending, he was a free man,” said Marcella Teplitz, the private investigator and former Peoria police detective who worked the case with attorneys Andrew Hale and Don Jackson.
Heidelberg was released May 22 after spending 47 years in prison for the shooting death of Peoria County Sheriff’s Deputy Ray Espinoza, a crime Heidelberg always maintained he did not commit.
Once Teplitz and Hale began to reexamine the case in 2015, much of the evidence against Heidelberg began to unravel.
Heidelberg was 75 and free on parole with an ankle bracelet when he died Saturday.
Peoria County Coroner Jamie Harwood responded to an inquiry on Sunday morning: “He was pronounced dead March 24, 2018, at 10:42 a.m. in his apartment. His autopsy is this morning. We do not suspect any foul play.”
Harwood release a statement later indicating there was no external trauma or sign of injury. Autopsy finds were inconclusive and further testing, including toxicology, will be done with results expected in 20 to 30 days.
Peoria County State’s Attorney Jerry Brady had appealed the decision of Peoria County Judge Albert Purham to grant a request for a special prosecutor in the case.
Over the course of about two years, Hale and Jackson have amassed new evidence they contend proves Heidelberg was innocent.
The Supreme Court recently declined to hear one of Brady’s appeals. Another appeal by Brady’s office is still pending in appellate court.
Amy Hijjawi,an attorney working on the case with Hale, said there is almost no legal precedent for the state to appeal to the Supreme Court a third-stage post-conviction ruling as had been done in the Heidelberg case.
“This man suffered so much, and he never gave up. It is not insignificant that he spent almost 50 years in prison and all that time told the court he was being railroaded,” she said.”His conviction was vacated so he got to have a Thanksgiving, a Christmas, a summer, a fall and a winter free.”
Hijjawi said Heidelberg continued his education in prison and became a “jailhouse lawyer” trying to assist other inmates with their cases.
“He tried to assert the rights of those who have no voice,” she said.
Heidelberg’s case was originally tried in 1970 during a period of heightened racial tensions across the country. Months earlier, Peorian Mark Clark had been shot and killed in Chicago along with Fred Hampton during a police raid on the apartment serving as headquarters for the state’s Black Panther party.
The Black Panther party was being portrayed as a violent organization, but in Peoria Clark was running a free breakfast program for schoolchildren.
In Peoria, Espinoza was shot May 22, 1970, as he was responding to an armed robbery at the Bellevue Drive-In movie theater. A high-speed police chase ensued with the suspect driving east on Lincoln Avenue and onto Blaine Street when his car crashed and the suspect fled on foot. He was not apprehended.
Sometime later, Heidelberg received a call that the car he had loaned to a friend had crashed on Blaine. He received a ride to a location near the Butternut Bread factory and began walking toward Blaine when police spotted him. He ran and was apprehended and beaten by arresting officers.
The police log verifies the sequence of events showing a time lag that makes it unlikely Heidelberg was driving the car during the police chase. There was no ballistic evidence, no fingerprints and no credible eyewitnesses proving Heidelberg had been the shooter. The Peoria Journal Star published an article quoting James Clark confessing to the shooting of Espinoza.
In a recent series of court hearings before Judge Purham, attorneys for Heidelberg proved eyewitnesses produced by police at the time had been coached and the reports were either lost or falsified.
Hale called the case an “unimaginable injustice.”
Attorney Celeste Stack, who assisted Heidelberg’s defense, said, “This case is one of the worst miscarriages of justice I’ve ever seen. It’s heartbreaking. Gives me a pit in my stomach.”