By Jim Hagerty
ROCKFORD – Patrick Pursley is finally a free man.
The 53-year-old learned his fate Wednesday as Judge Joe McGraw read the verdict. The decision came after a two-day bench trial.
“I could not find any physical evidence linking Mr. Pursley to the crime,” McGraw said. “The state did not meet its burden.”
Prosecutors alleged that Pursley shot and killed Andy Ascher on April 2, 1993, in the parking lot of an east-side condo complex. Those are the same allegations made in 1994, when he was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life behind bars.
Pursley won a new trial in 2017 when ballistics tests shed new light on the case.
Those tests took center stage during retrial as firearms experts John Murdock and Chris Coleman testified that the bullets and shell casings recovered from the crime scene were not fired from the Taurus 9mm the state alleged Pursley used to kill Ascher.
“We’re talking two guns here,” Coleman said as he compared a spent cartridge found at the scene with one fired from the alleged murder weapon during a test.
Coleman independently evaluated a report done by Murdock, who re-examined findings the Illinois State Police used to convict Pursley in 1994. Murdock examined cartridges and slugs that were fired from the Taurus in 1993 and 2011. The test showed distinct markings on the casings and the bullets. The questioned evidence contained distinct markings, too, Murdock said. But there was a problem.
“The two groups don’t match,” Murdock said. “The two groups were fired from different guns.”
Murdock and Coleman took the stand a day after two Illinois State Police experts stood by their findings that the gun connected to Pursley killed Ascher. Dan Gunnell tested evidence in 1993, and colleague Beth Patty re-tested it when the case came up on appeal. Patty said the tests performed on the bullets were inconclusive but that the shell casings were ejected from the Taurus 9mm.
Defense lawyer Andrew Vail said while Gunnell used resources that were considered best practices in 1993, he and Patty disregarded key identifiers that would have showed a different gun was used in the crime.
“They didn’t look at the other markings,” Vail said. “They turned a blind eye to the marks that are important to what kind of conclusion can be reached.”
The state attempted to impeach Murdock’s testimony with an argument that he overlooked key information about the gun. Prosecutors said he failed to explain that he evaluated the gun “in its current condition.” They argued that the barrel and breach face sustained scratches that could have been made by improper cleaning techniques. The markings caused scratches on the test shell casings but when they were made isn’t known.
Murdock testified that the timeline is moot because the scratches did not interfere with ballistics testing. The marks they caused on the test cartridges were nowhere near the marks used to compare them to the evidence found at the scene. Murdock, therefore, stood by his expert opinion that the bullets in question were not fired from the gun police found in Patrick Pursley’s bedroom.
Assistant State’s Attorney Jim Brun argued that the Illinois State Police found enough evidence based on what was available to them in 1993 to prove that the 9mm linked to the defendant is the murder weapon.
“Patty confirmed that Mr. Gunnell followed procedures of the ISP at that time,” Brun said.
In a twist last week, Pursley’s ex-girlfriend invoked her Fifth Amendment right to avoid testifying for the state about statements she made in 1993 that implicated him in Ascher’s death. Samantha Crabtree, who was living with Pursley at the time, told police she and Pursley were having financial problems and were driving around looking for people to rob the day of the homicide. She claims she dropped Pursley off in an area near the scene and heard gunshots a short time later. After she heard the shots, she said Pursley returned to the car and that she saw the Taurus 9mm, a gun she owned. She said he threatened to kill her if she didn’t keep quiet.
Crabtree gave similar testimony to a grand jury and was called by the state at Pursley’s first trail. Instead of testifying, she recanted her statement, claiming she lied and that she was coerced by police. Crabtree said investigators threatened to take her children away if she didn’t implicate Pursley in the killing. She was later charged with perjury.
Because Crabtree wasn’t willing to testify at Pursley’s retrial, Brun referred to her police statement and grand jury testimony during closing arguments.
“The truth is in the detail,” Brun said. “She wasn’t afraid of officers. She wasn’t coerced by police. She was afraid of the defendant. He told her, ‘If you get me caught, I will kill you.’” She did the only thing to protect herself and her children at trial and (that) was to lie. She did not lie to the grand jury and she did not lie in her six-page statement.”
Vail argued that Crabtree was not afraid of Pursley and that when she recanted, he was in custody. He said she visited him in jail whenever she could. The only fear, he said, was on the part of investigators, who were “afraid of the truth.”
McGraw said he was unable to determine which version of Crabtree’s story was accurate. It was an even greater disadvantage that she did not testify at retrial.
“She gave conflicting versions of what happened,” McGraw said. “(They) were replete with conflicts and contradictions, and this court did not have the opportunity to monitor her credibility.”
Regardless of what Crabtree told police, Vail argued, her statements were unreliable and did not agree with the evidence, most notably ballistics tests that show a different gun killed Andy Ascher.
“The state has not met its burden of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt,” Vail said. “In fact, it creates reasonable doubt.”
McGraw agreed, stating while experts on both sides were credible, Grunnell’s findings were cursory at best, and that they failed to examine markings on the evidence that would have proven exculpatory for Pursley.
“Mr. Murdock and Mr. Coleman considered things the Illinois State Police did not consider,” McGraw said. “It’s a puzzle, and all the pieces must fit together. Mr. Gunnell and Ms. Patty could no longer conclude that the bullets were fired from the Taurus. There’s a problem with that.”
Becky Myers, then Becky George, was dating Andy Ascher in 1993. She testified that on April 2, she and Ascher drove to Laughs R Us, a Machesney Park comedy club, at around 9:30 p.m. She said she couldn’t get into the club because she had recently got a traffic ticket and was without a photo ID. She said she and Ascher then argued and decided to drive to her brother’s condo at 2709 Silent Wood Trail.
“He said I didn’t really try to get in,” Myers testified.
Myers said she asked Ascher to sit in his red Ford Explorer and settle the quarrel before going into her brother’s residence. She said while she pleaded with him, a man approached the vehicle and opened the driver’s side door.
“I heard somebody say, ‘This is a stickup,’” she said. “‘Hand me your money. Hurry up. This is no joke.’”
Myers said as she dug in her purse for money, she heard three noises – two “pops” and one she couldn’t describe.
“I looked at Andy and his ears were smoking,” Myers said. “I realized he’d been shot.”
Myers said she looked at the gunman and recalled the sound of his voice. He was a thin man in a blue ski mask. He had black skin under his eyes and was wearing a hoodie with a zipper and thick black gloves.
“He sounded like a black male,” she said.
After shooting her boyfriend, the suspect fled on foot. Myers pounded on her brother’s door and told him to call 911. When she returned to the SUV, she saw a bleeding Ascher slumped over the steering wheel. He was pronounced dead at a local hospital.
Police executed a search warrant at Pursley’s Ashland Avenue apartment on June 10, 1993. There, they recovered a black pullover hoodie, black duffel bag, two pairs of black jeans, black boots, rubber gloves and two 9mm handguns.
The defense argued that the boots did not match a sneaker print found in the snow near the scene and that the hoodie didn’t match Myers’ description of the garment worn by the suspect. And while Crabtree told police Pursley was wearing a ski mask on his head like a cap, a ski mask was never found.
Flanked by his legal team and fellow exonerees, Pursley addressed reporters after the verdict and said he is still processing the reality that he’s is finally free–innocent of a crime he’s known for more than two decades he did not commit.
“I thank everyone who’s been in my corner fighting,” Pursley said. “It’s an amazing day. I am grateful for Northwestern (Center for Wrongful Convictions), and I am very grateful for the judge and that he took his time see the evidence for what it was.”
Pursley’s fight for freedom began more than 10 years ago when he wrote letters to noted post-conviction attorney Steven Drizin, recently of “Making a Murderer” fame. Drizin recalled how his team became involved with the case and how it’s now come full circle.
“This journey started with a letter, actually many letters from Patrick Pursley,” Drizin said. “In that letter, he said, ‘The gun that was seized from my home did not fire the bullets or the shell casings. I am innocent.’ And today, based on the judge’s findings, it is clear that what Patrick said to me more than a decade ago was absolutely true.”
Prosecutors did not speak to media following the verdict. Winnebago County State’s Attorney Marilyn Hite Ross issued a statement Wednesday afternoon.
“In this case, the court found that the evidence presented by the State at the retrial did not rise to the level of proof beyond a reasonable doubt,” Hite Ross said. “We respect the court’s decision.”