On September 6, 1997, Jarmain Merritt, a tire repair specialist, was organizing a block party for his son, Jockess’ sixth birthday. Detectives drove up to his home with guns drawn. Moments later, Merritt found himself in a squad car heading to Forest Park where he was told he was wanted for a carjacking and other crimes, even though he claimed that he had never been there.
In Forest Park, Merritt was placed in several lineups, approximately 4-5 in each district. No one could identify him. Frustrated, the police told Merritt that he would be released if he signed some papers. Merritt realized it was a confession and he refused to sign. He was held by false drug charges while the police attempted to ID him with a different carjacking in Oak Park. Merritt was held without bond.
After six weeks, Oak Park Police took Merritt from Forest Park to Oak Park where he was again placed in several lineups. Eight hours later, he was charged with aggravated kidnapping and vehicular hijacking and was taken back to Cook County Jail.
The Kidnapping and Carjacking of Ida Vanessa Dorantes
On Saturday, August 30, 1997, Ida Vanessa Dorantes was the victim of an attempted carjacking. Dorantes told the police and the court that at about 1:15pm, she went to the St. Paul bank branch at 6020 W. Roosevelt Rd. to make a deposit for her mother. When she got back into her car, a man who had been hiding on the floor behind the seat grabbed Dorantes around the neck and ordered her to drive, threatening to kill her. Dorantes caught only a glimpse of his face.
After driving two blocks, she pulled up in front of her house. Dorantes honked the horn, parked the car and turned off the ignition, leaving the key in place. The man began hitting her in the head with his left fist while holding her in place with his right arm. Dorantes escaped and the perpetrator turned on the car again.
Raul Martinez, a bystander, saw the incident take place and tried to detain the attacker. Martinez was able to hit him a few times and turn off the car. The perpetrator started the ignition again and drove off. The police found Dorantes’ car three blocks away. The car was immediately searched for evidence and fingerprints.
Merritt’s Trial Counsel Was Ineffective
Julie Harmon, Merritt’s public defender, had Investigator Paul Rossi interview Martinez in person. Martinez said that the incident lasted twenty-five seconds, he was not sure about the ID and that he could not be sure if the man was African American or Puerto Rican. Dorantes said that the whole thing lasted five minutes or less, that the offender was sitting behind her, and that she had not gotten a good enough glimpse of her attacker’s face to make a positive ID. When asked if she could be wrong about Merritt, she said she did not get a look at him.
Public Defender Harmon submitted at least two motions to get the case against Merritt dismissed. His family pooled enough funds to retain Attorney Anderson J. Ward to represent him. P.D. Harmon told Ward that if she were called to testify, she would say that she had never felt so compelled to prove someone’s innocence as she has been in Merritt’s case. She highlighted the fact that she spoke to the victim who was unable to identify the perpetrator as Mr. Merritt.
Ward did not conduct a thorough investigation and never interviewed anyone involved. He also did not interview any of the five people who were with Merritt at his home at the time the crime was being committed. Ward pointed out that Merritt is right handed (the perpetrator was left handed) and that the fingerprints found in Dorantes’ car did not belong to Merritt. Ward never examined the video tapes of the bank that police used as evidence. They were blank. Dorantes testified that the perpetrator was about 5” 10’ and 150 pounds, wore a blue long sleeve button shirt and tan dress pants. She gave a description that could have been any African American man. It is believed that she was told by the police to give this description. She could not describe the offender to detectives and previously said that she doubted it was Merritt. At trial, she said that she was positive on the ID. Ward did not use this evidence effectively. He also missed five court dates and was late for trial.
Judge William Prendergast found Merritt guilty of aggravated kidnapping and vehicular hijacking and sentenced him to thirty-five years in prison. Prior to trial the prosecution had offered Merritt a plea bargain of seven years which he had refused. He was punished for maintaining his innocence in a crime that he did not commit.
Where Was Jarmain Merritt on August 30, 1997?
Jarmain Merritt was at his family residence at 1408 East 67th St. in Chicago, Illinois. He was with his son Jockess and his two month old daughter Jermani the entire weekend planning a party for his son. Merritt was home that day until late in the evening when he went to the corner store for some diapers. Also at Merritt’s house that entire afternoon were his mother, Dorothy Burnett, his step-father, Frank Burnett, and his brother, Howard Burnett. Horace Hardy also spoke with Merritt by telephone that afternoon. He is a Cook County Sheriff’s Correctional Officer and a family friend. Lashauna Pinkston stopped at Merritt’s home at 1:25 that afternoon and spoke with him in person. Anderson J. Ward, Merritt’s attorney, never called any of these individuals to testify.
Why did the police frame Jarmain Merritt for this crime?
According to police reports there were two perpetrators of the carjacking in Forest Park. During the carjacking that Merritt was first accused of, the victim heard one of the offenders call the other by a nickname, “Juice.” Jarmain Merritt was known to the police by the same nickname. The victim of the Forest Park carjacking did not ID Merritt because he wasn’t the suspect. However, he vaguely fit Ida Vanessa Dorantes’ description in a different carjacking in Oak Park.
Police Investigation Tactics
Chicago Police falsely charged Merritt with drug possession while trying to pin the crime on him. Charges were dropped. The day before Merritt’s arrest, the Forest Park Police visited the home of Merritt’s mother. She was not home. They removed the window air conditioner, entered, and searched her house without a warrant. A neighbor called the CPD to report the incident. Police took Lashauna Pinkston to the police station where she was held and questioned for over 24 hours regarding his whereabouts, which she did not know. She was threatened with the seizure of her children and her own arrest if she did not tell them where Mr. Merritt was. She was not released until Merritt himself was arrested the following day.
Protest the Wrongful Conviction of Jarmain Merritt!
For more information go to http://freejarmainmerritt.blogspot.com/. Letters supporting Merritt’s Petition for Executive Clemency can be sent to Governor Pat Quinn at the Office of the Governor, 207 State House, Springfield, IL 62706, Phone: 217-782-0244. Write to Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez and demand that she grant a new trial to Jarmain Merritt! Email her at: [email protected]
Anyone with knowledge of the actual carjacking against Ida Vanessa Dorantes on August 30, 1997, please contact Mr. Merritt’s attorney or the Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression.
Mr. Jeffrey Levine, Attorney at Law
20 N Clark Street # 800
Chicago, IL 60602-4119
Chicago Alliance Against Racial and Political Repression
1325 S. Wabash Ave., Suite 105
Chicago, IL 60605
You may also write a letter of support to Mr. Merritt during this difficult time.
Mr. Jarmain Merritt, B39606
Jacksonville Correctional Center
2268 E. Morton Ave.
Jacksonville IL 62650