BY CLARE HOWARD
Attorney Andrew Hale is completing a comprehensive petition he expects to file within the next two weeks with the 10th Judicial Circuit Court in Peoria asking the court to reopen the 1970 murder conviction of Cleve Heidelberg.
Hale said his petition includes new and compelling evidence that Heidelberg is innocent in the murder of Peoria County Sheriff’s Sgt. Raymond Espinoza. The petition includes sworn affidavits from people willing to testify in court under oath about critical information that supports Heidelberg’s claim of innocence, Hale said.
In one sworn affidavit signed March 25, Matthew Clark recounts his brother’s confession to the Espinoza murder.
During the 1970 trial, none of the people cited in this new petition testified, Hale said.
Heidelberg was sentenced to life in prison and has spent 45 years behind bars.
The Heidelberg case came to the attention of Hale, a Chicago attorney, who has been investigating the murder for the past year and is convinced of Heidelberg’s innocence.
“100 percent convinced,” Hale said in a recent interview.
He flew to California to meet with Matthew Clark, brother of the man who confessed to the murder.
Clark, 75 and now living in Pasadena, states in a sworn affidavit that his brother James and another friend had borrowed Heidelberg’s car.
It was in the early morning hours of May 26, 1970, that James Clark drove the car to the old Bellevue Drive-in movie theater on Harmon Highway where he shot and killed Espinoza and fled the scene, crashing the car into a parked vehicle after turning onto Blaine and Butler streets and then fleeing north on foot.
In the affidavit, Clark said he was pressured by the state’s attorney’s office in 1970 to implicate Heidelberg, but he refused.
Clark states in the affidavit he was one of 16 brothers and sisters growing up in Peoria. One younger brother Mark Clark was shot and killed by Chicago police during a raid on the Black Panthers headquarters. Panther leader Fred Hampton was also shot and killed in that raid.
In the months following that shooting, Clark said his older brother James became increasingly upset with police. It was during his attempted armed robbery of the Bellevue Drive-in theater that James Clark said he saw a sheriff’s patrol car approaching and fired through the windshield. He said at the time “It was kill or be killed.”
In the affidavit, Matthew Clark stated that his brother James was arrested in Rock Island in July, and FBI agents came to question him about finding his fingerprints on evidence relating to the shooting of Espinoza months earlier in Peoria.
FBI reports from that interview have not been located by either Hale or Marcella Teplitz, a private investigator in Peoria working with Hale on the case.
Hale documented his research in a report submitted in December to Peoria County State’s Attorney Jerry Brady asking that the case be reopened. Brady declined.
“Based on what I reviewed, I did not find a basis to reopen the case,” Brady said recently, declining further comment.
Matthew Clark’s signed affidavit clearly indicates there was reasonable doubt about Heidelberg’s innocence from the beginning, Hale said, yet police, FBI, the prosecutor and the judge proceeded with a case to convict Heidelberg.
Hale said, “The police built a case against Cleve Heidelberg the very night of the shooting and they got all the witnesses on board. The police and prosecutor did not want to come off that version and look at other explanations.”
Neither Hale nor Teplitz have been able to locate the FBI report of the Rock Island interview with James Clark.
“The police manufactured this case. Every police officer who touched this case was involved. It was the job of the prosecutor to put a stop to it, and they all bear responsibility for what happened,” Hale said.
In his petition, Hale is asking the court to appoint a special prosecutor to reopen and investigate the case.
He cited new rules that went into effect in Illinois on Jan. 1 compelling prosecutors to make reasonable efforts to investigate new and credible evidence and seek remedy in previous cases that may have resulted in wrongful convictions.
“The Peoria County State’s Attorney has failed to do that,” Hale said, citing a recent DeKalb case in which the state’s attorney issued a comprehensive report documenting facts leading him to overturn a previous conviction.
“I’m not asking for the release of Cleve Heidelberg,” Hale said. “I’m asking to reopen and review the case. If there is no second look at a case when another guy confessed, when is a second look justified?”
James Clark who confessed to the murder of Sgt. Espinoza died in 2015.