CHICAGO — A former suburban Chicago gang member who spent 20 years in prison after being convicted of murder on evidence he alleged was fabricated by police has received a $15 million settlement in a civil rights lawsuit against the city of Chicago Heights.
Rodell Sanders, who was freed in 2014, long contended Chicago Heights police knew he wasn’t involved in the December 1993 shooting of Philip Atkins and Stacy Armstrong. Sanders, 51, claimed police manipulated evidence to frame him because of his gang ties.
Chicago Heights Mayor David Gonzalez said in a statement the agreement, which conceded no wrongdoing by the city or its police and was approved by a federal judge Wednesday, was entered into “to protect the interests of taxpayers and to forge community unity in our diverse city.”
Atkins and Armstrong were asleep inside a car when four men forced them out of the vehicle at gunpoint. According to prosecutors, Armstrong said one of the men she identified as Sanders ordered Atkins killed after he admitted he was a member of a rival street gang, the Mickey Cobras. Armstrong was also shot three times but survived and was the sole witness against Sanders.
Defense attorney Russell Ainsworth alleged two Chicago Heights police detectives rigged the identification by cropping a photo of Sanders so that he would thinner. Armstrong picked out Sanders’ photo and later identified him at trial as the man who had ordered the shootings.
Before Sanders’ original trial, prosecutors proposed a plea deal that Ainsworth said called for Sanders to be sentenced to about 23 years in prison, but he never considered taking it. After his conviction, Sanders was sentenced to 80 years in prison.
That conviction was overturned in 2011 based on Sanders’ claim of ineffective assistance of counsel, and he walked out of jail in July 2014 after a jury in his retrial found him not guilty.
Sanders’ wrongful conviction lawsuit against then-police Chief Sam Mangialardi, several detectives and Chicago Heights alleged they conspired to violate his civil rights.
At the time of Sanders’ conviction, federal prosecutors were investigating corruption in the Chicago Heights police department and in City Hall. Mangialardi and six other Chicago Heights officers were eventually convicted of civil rights violations, racketeering, witness tampering, bribery and extortion.