Heidelberg’s murder conviction tossed

clockwise from top left: Marcella Teplitz, private investigator on the Cleve Heidelberg case, joins an emotional huddle following the judge’s ruling to vacate Heidelberg’s conviction.

Cleve Heidelberg turns to smile at his sister, Mae Winston, after the judge’s ruling.

Attorney Amy Hijjawi wipes her eyes after Heidelberg’s conviction was vacated.

Attorney Andy Hale, left, introduces Heidelberg’s sister Mae Winston during a press conference after the court hearing. He said Winston has been a steadfast supporter of her brother for the past 47 years. 

 

BY CLARE HOWARD

Cleve Heidelberg’s 47-year-old murder conviction was vacated Thursday following months of often emotional arguments before Peoria County Judge Albert Purham.

Attorneys Andy Hale and Amy Hijjawi embraced Heidelberg in a long, tearful huddle, but the joy was brief and gave way to indignation when Matt Jones, special prosecutor in the case, immediately filed an appeal.

Hale and attorney Don Jackson, on speaker phone, argued that bond should be set so Heidelberg could be free pending the appeal.

In frustration over the state’s appeal, Hale argued, “I don’t see how the state could retry this case.”

He said during two years of work, he was able to totally dismantle the case against Heidelberg. During numerous court hearings, Hale asserted there was no ballistic evidence, no fingerprints and no eyewitnesses proving Heidelberg was the shooter. In fact, Hale relied on the police radio transcript from the night of May 26, 1970, to point out discrepancy after discrepancy between events as they were unfolding and the official police reports. He has charged that when the police were left with no evidence, they manufactured their reports.

Purham declined to set bond, and Heidelberg is back at Hill Correctional Center in Galesburg waiting the appeal process.

“His conviction was vacated. He is no longer a convicted criminal. He has to be the longest serving prisoner to have his conviction vacated,” Hale said. “I hope to see Cleve walk out a free man. I was hoping that would be today, but we are close.”

He characterized the appeal by the state as “frivolous.”

“The Peoria County State’s Attorney’s office fought us every step of the way, putting up roadblock after roadblock . . . . Today, the conviction was vacated. That was the hard part. The final step is coming,” Hale said.

Heidelberg was arrested 47 years ago in the early morning of May 26, 1970, following the shooting death of Peoria Country Sheriff’s Deputy Ray Espinoza at the Bellevue Drive-In movie theater.

He had loaned his Blue Dodge Rambler to another man who loaned it to James Clark who latter confessed to using the car in a robbery at the Bellevue Drive-In movie theater that resulted in gun fire and the death of Espinoza.

Following the court ruling, Jones held a press conference. Phyllis Espinoza, daughter of Ray Espinoza, said she was disappointed in the judge’s decision and “worries if Mr. Heidelberg is freed, who his next victim will be based on his violence.”

Heidelberg, now 74, has congestive heart failure, walks with difficulty and has steadfastly maintained his innocence over the past 47 years.

Jones said he has relied on facts to argue this case and has not resorted to emotion and the “beyond hyperbolic statements” made by Heidelberg’s attorneys.

During a press conference outside the courthouse, Hale said, “The state knows damn well it is not going to retry Cleve Heidelberg. He should have been let out today . . . our case is on very solid ground.”

In another legal argument in this case, the judge set May 25 for a status report on the independent review of the case by the Illinois State’s Attorney’s office.

 

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