Twenty years ago, when James Ealy’s conviction in the slaying of a pregnant woman and three children was thrown out on appeal, a Chicago judge warned that a menace to society was about to be turned loose.
Two decades later, prosecutors believe Judge Thomas J. Maloney has been proven horribly right.
Ealy, now 42, shuffled into a suburban Chicago courtroom this week, again accused of murder. Prosecutors say he strangled a Burger King employee last month with the bow tie from her uniform.
The circumstances were similar to those that led to his conviction in the 1982 murders. Ealy, then 17, was accused of using a piece of fabric to strangle 33-year-old Christine Parker, her two daughters, ages 12 and 15, and the older girl’s 3-year-old son. The boy, whose body was found curled up in a ball on a bathroom floor, had been also been molested.
When an appeals court later ruled that the evidence used to convict Ealy was the result of an improper arrest and search, Maloney issued his warning from the bench.
“When this dangerous man is released from the penitentiary, the state should rent every billboard in the county and state to announce that he has been turned loose on society,” he said.
One of the detectives who investigated that case felt sick when he started reading news reports that said a man named James Ealy had been arrested in the Nov. 27 killing of Burger King manager Mary Hutchison.
‘A dangerous predator out there’
“I was hoping against hope it wasn’t the same guy, wasn’t our James Ealy,” Vic Switski said Thursday. “But when I got to the part she died of strangulation ... it was like I got kicked in the stomach.”
He added: “This guy was a dangerous predator out there.”
As for the judge who warned against Ealy’s release, he is now in federal prison, convicted in 1993 of taking bribes to fix cases. There have been no allegations he committed any wrongdoing in Ealy’s case.
At the quadruple murder trial, prosecutors presented several pieces of evidence against Ealy, who lived at the same Chicago public housing complex as the victims. The evidence included a signed confession and a piece of fabric found in his mother’s apartment that matched the material police said was used to kill at least one of the victims.
A jury deliberated for just three hours before finding Ealy guilty of four counts of murder in 1984, and he was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
But Ealy’s attorney appealed, arguing that the confession was phony and was beaten out of him and the evidence was collected improperly.
Conviction overturned, despite suspicions
In 1986, the Illinois Appellate Court overturned the conviction — even as justices acknowledged Ealy almost certainly was guilty. They said police had arrested him without probable cause and conducted an illegal search, and they threw out virtually all of the evidence against him.
A year later, exasperated prosecutors said they had no choice but to drop the murder charges instead of retrying him, since the confession and other key evidence could not be used against him.
Ealy’s attorney at the time, Randy Mehrberg, said the justice system had worked.
“This is exactly the type of confession that the Constitution is intended to protect against,” he said in 1987. “You can’t have police going around and picking up people without evidence.”
Ealy remained in prison for an earlier rape conviction until 1993. He then went back to prison for another offense in 1996, and got paroled again in 1999.
Jailed without bail
Ealy is jailed without bail in the killing of the 45-year-old Burger King manager during a robbery at a restaurant where he once worked. As much as $2,000 was stolen.
Investigators said Ealy came under suspicion when he and other current and former Burger King employees were interviewed. Police said they later searched his apartment and found cash from the restaurant safe, and also found evidence that he made a cell phone call to the Burger King on the day of the crime.
This week, Ealy told a judge his family was trying to raise money to hire a lawyer.
The chief prosecutor in the quadruple murder case, Brian Telander, said that he always believed Ealy would strike again.
“When the case got thrown out and he was released, I had this sinking feeling,” Telander said. “We were sick.”