Man who spent decades in prison gets $15 million settlement

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FOX 32 NEWS / AP — 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.

"I can honestly say I've lived a happy life for these two years. I'm happy," Rodell Sanders said, who was released from prison two years ago.

"I don't know that you could say it really makes things right, because you can never give me back 20 years they've taken from me. I've lost those years with my family. I've lost those years with my children. There's many things that I've lost that can never be given back," Sanders said.

Freed in 2014, Sanders 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.

"Rodell Sanders' conviction was a sad product of a system that did not hold its police officers accountable. There are lessons to be learned from this," said Sanders' attorney Russell Ainsworth.

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.

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.

During his 20 years behind bars, Sanders taught himself law and was eventually able to get his conviction overturned and prevail at a new trial.

"Because I didn't want to die in prison. I wanted to make it back to my family. I wanted to expose the Chicago Heights Police Department for exactly what they were," Sanders said.

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.

For the past two years, Sanders has been working on other wrongful conviction cases as a law clerk at the same firm that got him the settlement.

"We need good investigators to help try and free these guys. And that's why I want to stay at Loevy and Loevy. I want to participate in it," Sanders said.

Chicago Heights released a statement saying the settlement was the best course of action for taxpayers. The city will pay $2 million dollars itself. The other $13 million dollars will be paid by insurance carriers.