NBC 5 Chicago reports that the now 52 year old Christopher Abernathy will receive a settlement of around 14 million dollars from Insurers representing the Village of Park Forest, from the Village itself, and other local law enforcement as compensation for him being wrongfully detained for 29 years after he was convicted for the slaying and rape of 15 year old Kristina Hickey.
Here are a few details about the case and trial from Abernathy’s page on the National Registry of Exonerations database, written by Maurice Possley. On October the 3rd, 1984, 15 year old Park Forest child Kristina Hickey was abducted on her way home from Coir practice and was found deceased two days later behind a shopping mall. She had been raped and stabbed. Abernathy was an 17 year old high school senior at this time and it was a comment made to police by an acquaintance of his that led police to looking at him. About a year after the murder, Possley writes “police brought in 18-year-old Christopher Abernathy for questioning after an acquaintance, Allan Dennis, told police that several months earlier Abernathy had admitted killing Hickey. Abernathy had attended Hickey’s funeral—as did several hundred other teenagers—and was heard saying that he had a gun in his car and intended to fire a salute afterward. Police checked Abernathy out at that time, but decided the comment was not serious.” But this time the police pinned Abernathy as a serious suspect, in fact it seemed they were specifically focused on Abernathy as their singular suspect. They grilled Abernathy viciously and lengthily as Possley writes. “After more than 40 hours of interrogation, Abernathy, a high school dropout who had been classified as learning disabled, signed a confession saying he saw her walking home and wanted to have sex with her. When she refused, he attempted to rape her and then accidentally stabbed her with a pocket knife he had in his hand.”
First off, rest in peace to Kristina Hickey and my thoughts go out to her family and friends affected by such a vicious, horrible crime. But the police trapped a young, vulnerable man with a learning disability in a darkly lit room without a lawyer present and basically held him hostage until he confessed to a crime he didn’t commit. What other way can you put it? This is why the Laura Law office begs you to never ever talk to police without your lawyer present, even if you are 100% innocent. Ideally people like to believe that the police are always looking out for the truth when questioning suspects, but in a lot of cases they are just confirming the biases they already started with and will be naturally confrontational. Even though Abernathy quickly recanted the confession, claiming that he signed it because the police promised in return he could go free and see his mother, it was too late. The fact that Abernathy thought that in such a serious crime that he would just be able to go home after confessing should’ve made it painfully clear that this young man had some learning disability issues. The police had to know this, but they disgustingly grilled Abernathy for 40 hours anyway. Frankly, that is torture.
When Abernathy went to trial in Cook Counties Circuit Court in January of 1987, the Prosecution’s entire case rested on Abernathy’s confession and the statements made to police by Abernathy’s acquaintance Dennis- mentioned earlier in this blog. There was no forensic or physical evidence that tied him to the crime, and tests on Abernathy’s person for the presence of semen was negative. But the jury convicted him for first degree murder, aggravated criminal sexual assault, and armed robbery all the same. It’s an atrocity that they allowed that forced confession into evidence for the jury to review. The only thing that saved Abernathy from the death penalty was the fact he was a minor at the time of the crime, which is just another indicator about the death penalties failure as a policy. If Abernathy was a few months older, he would be dead for a crime he didn’t commit and there would be no taking back this grievous mistake.
According to Possley, about 15 years later some new developments in the case began to emerge: Dennis recanted his testimony at trial that Abernathy had confessed to him that he committed the crime. In fact, the police were once again implied to have used coercive methods in their questioning of Dennis to get him to give the statement he originally did. There were also benefits given to Dennis undisclosed to the Defense- like $300 worth of clothes and the promise of leniency on pending minor charges. Journalist students from Northwestern University dug deep into the case and believed they had found good reason to believe that Abernathy was innocent. They brought their findings to a law firm that included Illinois Innocence project worker Lauren Kaeseberg- who began work on the case in 2013. She subsequently asked the Cook County Integrity unit to review the case as well, and after an agreement between the Innocence Project and Integrity Unit, it was allowed that eight items of evidence were to be tested for DNA evidence. This included items such as Hickey’s clothing and purse. After the testing, it was revealed that there was zero DNA evidence of Abernathy being on any of the items and a partial DNA profile of another person’s was found instead. Although this partial profile wasn’t enough to find the person who it belonged to, the prosecution agreed that these new developments cleared Abernathy of all crimes.
In February of 2015 the Integrity Unity recommended that all charges against Abernathy be dropped, and that same day he was released. He was finally able to go home to his mother, fulfilling the now decades broken promise the police made to him in return for his forced confession- again after 40 hours of interrogation without a lawyer. In 2016 Abernathy filed a Federal civil rights lawsuit against the people he saw as responsible for his incarceration, which included two former police officers who worked on the case and the cook counties states attorney’s office. This lead to the settlement recently won by Abernathy, of nearly 14 million dollars.
It’s undoubtedly good news that Abernathy was granted this settlement and that the police and court systems were actually held accountable for the negative consequences of their actions. But no amount of money in the world can give Christopher back the nearly 30 years he lost. Years he could’ve spent falling in love and being loved, time with friends and family, and just time to be happy. Instead he spent those years inside a cell, likely confused over being caged for a crime he didn’t commit. That is a tragedy and a stark reminder of how confessions are in many cases, coercively obtained.
The other tragedy that should never be forgotten is that of Kristina Hickey’s. She was a child who deserved to live a happy and full life and that was viciously taken away from her in the most brutal way possible and no justice has ever been achieved for her. That justice may never be achieved now because of the police’s decision to focus in on Abernathy, wasting years of valuable time and resources that could’ve went into finding her actual killer. It doesn’t seem fair that those involved in the wrongful incarceration of people such as Abernathy- like the police who interrogated him for 40 hours- should just be financially punished. Lots of times, the vast majority of that financial burden falls on the taxpayers to pay, which will happen in this case too. So those police officers and prosecutors stole years of a person life away and stole money from the public as well. Why shouldn’t they see jail time?
-by Jake Morask