A lawsuit was filed in federal court in Peoria Thursday against Peoria and Peoria County seeking more than $100 million and a jury trial on behalf of the estate of Cleve Heidelberg, a Peoria man who was imprisoned for 47 years and died 10 months after his conviction was vacated.
One of the attorneys for Heidelberg said the case is no longer just about him but about the integrity of the criminal justice system.
The suit claims evidence against Heidelberg was falsified, destroyed and manufactured. The suit claims police, sheriff deputies and state’s attorneys acted in a conspiratorial manner to cover up misconduct.
Cleve Heidelberg was 27 on May 26, 1970 when Peoria County Sheriff’s Deputy Ray Espinoza was shot and killed in a botched robbery attempt at the old Bellevue Drive-In movie theater. The suit claims police and prosecutors knew evidence against Heidelberg was falsified and that an FBI report failing to find his fingerprints on the murder weapon was suppressed. In fact, there was no forensic evidence linking Heidelberg to the murder.
Prosecutors originally sought the death penalty. Heidelberg was sentenced to 99 to 175 years in prison and always maintained his innocent.
The lawsuit reviews events leading up to the botched robbery and murder of Espinoza and highlights discrepancies and Constitutional violations.
Hours after the shooting, a sheriff’s deputy eavesdropped and listened to the protected conversation between Heidelberg and his public defender. The police then used that information, the lawsuit charges, to identify and intimidate all the eyewitnesses who could corroborate that Heidelberg was not the shooter and had loaned his car to another man who then loaned it to yet another man who committed the murder.
That illegal eavesdropping was unknown to Heidelberg who believed his public defender was leaking information to police. Heidelberg decided to proceed without an attorney and to represent himself in a complicated legal case.
Reached for comment, one of Heidelberg’s attorneys Amy Hijjawi said the evidence shows “three agencies of the state of Illinois colluded to defeat an independent investigation.”
She said the Peoria County State’s Attorney and special prosecutor colluded in recent post conviction hearings much as there had been collusion against Heidelberg in 1970.
“That is so egregious to me,” she said.
This case is no longer about Cleve Heidelberg, she said, but about the criminal justice system.
We live with the belief that the police and courts make decisions based on facts, but in this case, facts were destroyed, fabricated, manufactured and suppressed, Hijjawi said.
Peoria County State’s Attorney Jerry Brady did not immediately respond to a request for comment.