Marni Yang was wrongfully convicted of the murder of Rhoni Reuter, the pregnant girlfriend of ex-Chicago Bear Shaun Gayle, her lawyer says.
CHICAGO — Eight years after Marni Yang was convicted of murdering Rhoni Reuter and her unborn child, her lawyer Tuesday filed a petition arguing that she is innocent and asking for the guilty verdict to be overturned. The petition cites newly discovered evidence, including DNA, as well as misconduct by police and prosecutors during the investigation and trial.
Reuter, 42, was pregnant with the child of former Chicago Bears safety Shaun Gayle when she was fatally shot on Oct. 4, 2007, in her Deerfield condominium. Prosecutors argued Yang, a former real estate agent who was also romantically involved with Gayle, was driven to murder by jealousy. They argued Yang built a silencer, rented a car, and dressed up in dark facepaint and a costume wig before going to Reuter’s house and shooting her six times. Yang is serving a pair of life sentences at Logan Correctional Center for the killing.
Defense attorney Jed Stone said new findings from forensic experts show Yang could not have been committed the murder. He said prosecutors in the case had exculpatory evidence that they never turned over to Yang’s original lawyers, Jeff Lerner and Bill Hedrick. The two prosecutors — Patricia Fix and Ari Fisz — both now serve as Lake County judges.
A key piece of evidence at Yang’s 2011 trial was her recorded confession to friend Christi Paschen in March 2009 at a Denny’s restaurant. But the post-conviction petition says she concocted the admissions out of a fear that authorities would charge her son with murder.
Yang’s recorded statements were a “textbook false confession,” Stone said Wednesday at a downtown Chicago press conference with Yang’s family and experts who carried out a three-year investigation of the murder.
“Why do people confess to crimes that they didn’t commit? Because they get worn down by police. Because children are threatened, loved ones are threatened, and they do something stupid like confess to it to protect people that they love,” Stone said. “That’s what happened here.”
If Marni Yang’s “fanciful, false” confession is compared to the physical and forensic evidence from the scene, “you come to the inescapable conclusion that Marni didn’t know what she was talking about,” Stone said. He said the recorded confession included several factual errors that were contradicted by crime scene evidence, including the position of Reuter’s body.
Andrew Yang, Marni’s son who was 16 at the time, said his mother was pressured into confessing to something she did not do after police threatened to lock him up. He said police denied his requests for a lawyer as they tried to solicit a confession.
“The damage that they did to me, I don’t think that I’ll ever be the same,” he said. “With all the pressure and the torment from them, I started getting involved with heavy drugs. I landed myself into a psychiatric unit, just to kind of get away from everything. I couldn’t take it anymore. I was on the verge of just ending it all. I don’t think any kid at my age should have to go through what I went through.”
Detectives told Andrew Yang “one of you [is] going to prison for the rest of your life,” according to the petition, and asked him, “Will it be you or your mother?”
Emily Yang, Marni’s daughter, said once police found she had not seen her father in more than eight years, they told her they would contact him for her if she wrote out a false statement saying that her mother had written letters to Gayle’s 16 other girlfriends.
“When I finally did call him, he told me ‘F you. Don’t ever call here again.’ That was the opposite of what they told me. They told me he wanted to see us,” Emily Yang told reporters. Ahead of her testimony at trial, she said, she told then-prosecutor Fix the statement was not true. But Fix threatened the then-16-year-old girl with “really big trouble” if she did not testify, she said. (Fix is prohibited from responding to the allegations by the Illinois Judicial Conduct Code.)
Authorities had been listening to all of Marni Yang’s conversations, including calls to her parents, where she detailed her plans to falsely confess to the murder after a warrant was issued for her son’s arrest in the case, according to Stone. Recordings of those conversations were never disclosed to the defense and are missing from the designated discs, the petition says.
In audio of a wiretapped phone call included in the petition but not presented to the jury or defense attorneys, Paschen is recorded complaining to Yang about lengthy interrogations from detectives.
“Alright,” Yang responds. “We’ll start making s— up.”
Another recording in the petition, also kept from lawyer, suggests that Yang was aware she was being recorded during her retracted confession with Paschen, a self-professed psychic and former CIA operative.
A polygraph operator determined Yang was telling the truth when she said she saw the wire Paschen was wearing before the confession and that she confessed to Reuter’s murder to protect her son from arrest, the petition says.
“The 2007 high-profile murder of Rhoni Reuter and her unborn child remained unsolved. Empty handed, the Lake County Major Crimes Task Force targeted and laid siege to Marni and my grandchildren for close to two years without looking at any of the viable witnesses that they had,” said Larry Merar, Marni Yang’s father. “When they were unable to implicate Marni in the murder, they fabricated a crime theory, if you will, manipulated evidence and witnesses in order to solve their problem. They sold that to the media, the judge and the jury.”
Merar said his daughter told him police had been “terrorizing” her and her children for nearly two years and they could not take any more. Yang said him she would meet with Paschen and make up a story that she was responsible for the killing, according to her father. Merar said he warned her against it, but she was adamant she needed to admit to murder to protect her children.
“Two families have been impacted by this. Our family, of course, and I can’t even imagine what the Reuter family was made to go through with all this. Rhoni Reuter should be allowed to rest in peace knowing that her murderer isn’t walking the streets free to kill somebody else,” Merar said. “That said, the Lake County task force is obligated to properly investigate this crime and the other suspects who had significant motive to commit the crime.”
According to the petition, Gayle provided inconsistent statements and police failed to investigate his alibi, “giving great deference to his celebrity status.”
Gayle was a member of the 1985 Super Bowl-winning Bears team and had dated Reuter for more than 17 years before she died. According to the post-conviction petition, police reported that Gayle told Reuter, “Wait and see what happens. You don’t know if the baby will make it,” after his girlfriend discussed buying baby furniture. The petition says several earlier pregnancies Reuter experienced with Gayle ended with abortions.
Gayle issued a written statement at Yang’s sentencing hearing. His attorney, Donna Rotunno, said he would have delivered it himself, except that, in a move she called “despicable,” defense attorneys said they would object because it had not been proven whether Gayle was the father of the unborn child. Directed at Yang, Gayle’s statement said she was an “animal” and that, if there is a hell, Yang will “burn in the hottest part of it,” according to reports from the time.
“How could you shoot a woman seven months pregnant who had never harmed you?” he said. “I will just continue to tell myself that you are an evil, sick, deplorable woman.”
Yang’s conviction was upheld on appeal and the Illinois Supreme Court declined to hear the case. But under the Post-Conviction Hearing Act, a petition can be filed if there is newly discovered evidence of actual innocence that was unavailable at trial or evidence of a fundamental miscarriage of justice. If the petition survives motions for dismissal, a judge can hold an evidentiary hearing where the person convicted has the burden of showing a constitutional violation. After that, a court may decide to grant a reversal of the conviction and, potentially, a new trial.
“The prosecution intentionally concealed the existence of certain tape recorded and photographic evidence,” the post-conviction petition says. “By failure to disclose tapes, photographs and other exculpatory evidence from the trial defense lawyers, the prosecutors deprived Marni Yang of a fair trial and affirmatively denied the jury of critical information, rendering their verdicts unreliable.”
Former State’s Attorney Michael Waller presided over the office at the time of Yang’s trial and conviction. Citing pending litigation, a spokesperson for the Lake County State’s Attorney’s Office said it was unable to comment.
According to the petition, Stone and defense investigators found numerous pieces of evidence turned up by that show Yang was wrongly found guilty. Among them:
- DNA from live rounds found at the scene came from an unknown male and not Yang, testing conducted after the conviction revealed.
- Crime scene photos that were not given to the defense “provide scientific proof” that the shooter was taller than Reuter, while Yang is 9 inches shorter.
- The gun that Yang was accused of using was stolen months before Reuter’s killing, and detectives knew it because the thief confessed in 2008. This evidence was withheld from defense attorneys.
- Prosecutors claimed that Yang used a homemade silencer she built using parts purchased at a Home Depot, but the alleged murder weapon could not have fit such a silencer and investigators found the items she was alleged to have used at her house being used for “common home use and repairs.”
- Surveillance video of a black car shown at trial was not, as prosecutors alleged without opposition from defense attorneys, a Volkswagen Rabbit such as the one Yang rented two days before the homicide.
“We’re going to get a hearing on this case. We’re going to get a hearing because there is evidence of actual innocence. We’re going to get a hearing because there is evidence of police misconduct. We’re going to get a hearing because there is evidence of a prosecutor suborning perjury,” Stone said. “When those things are proven to a judge, we will get a new trial. And at that new trial, each and every aspect of the prosecution’s case will be challenged and a new result will come.”
Watch: Complete Oct. 2 press conference with Waukegan defense attorney Jed Stone, members of Marni Yang’s family and experts who participated in the post-conviction investigation:
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Published at Wed, 02 Oct 2019 15:10:00 +0000