The conviction of Nathaniel Onsrud for the death of his 4-month old son has been vacated.
Onsrud was originally sentenced to 60-years in jail in 2008 after he pled guilty. He had tried to withdraw his plea at the time, but his motion was denied.
After taking Onsrud’s case, the Illinois Innocence Project recently contacted the Rock Island County State’s Attorney’s Office seeking a review of the case. In their research, the State’s Attorney’s Office found documents that had not been disclosed by a former prosecutor to the defense during the original trial.
With this new information, Rock Island County State’s Attorney Dora Villarreal asked the court to vacate Onsrud’s conviction and release him from jail while the case remains pending.
“Our client, Nathaniel Onsrud, maintained from day one he had nothing to do with the tragic death of his infant son,” said Illinois Innocence Project Chicago Legal Director Lauren Kaeseberg. “For the past 13 years, Nathaniel has fought to clear his name and has been through the unimaginable ordeal of losing his baby and then being wrongfully convicted of murdering him. We are so thankful that the State’s Attorney of Rock Island County has acted in the interests of justice and that we can bring Nathaniel home today.”
According to a press release from the Illinois Innocence Project at the University of Springfield and the attorneys of Erickson & Oppenheimer, Ltd in Chicago, Onsrud’s 4-month old son, Dax, who was born premature and had medical complications, became unresponsive while in Onsrud’s care. Initial medical examinations did not show any foul play. Investigators still focused on Onsrud and eventually through interviews got what they deemed a confession. Onsrud’s defense attorney then encouraged him to plead guilty.
“To call this an injustice is a colossal understatement,” said Michael Oppenheimer of Erickson & Oppenheimer. “This was a grotesque, coordinated effort by corrupt cops, an unscrupulous and malicious prosecutor and a dishonorable medical examiner. They worked together, for the sake of their own careers – far outside all bounds of the law – to destroy an innocent man and his family forever.”
“However, I would like to commend the current Rock Island State’s Attorney, Dora Villarreal, for her dedicated leadership role in working to right this horrible wrong,” Oppenheimer added.
Onsrud, who has spent the past 13 years at the Menard Correctional Center in Marion, Illinois, will be released on Tuesday, June 23.
Rock Island County State’s Attorney Dora Villarreal also stated that her office plans to review all the cases that were handled by the former prosecutor in this case.
Below is the full statement from Rock Island County State’s Attorney Dora Villarreal:
Today, I came before the Court, along with the Illinois’ Innocence Project, to seek an order to vacate the conviction of Nathaniel Onsrud in case 2007 CF 720. Mr. Onsrud was serving a 60-year prison term after he was convicted of murder in 2008.
Mr. Onsrud pled guilty in the death of his 4-month old son in 2008. He was sentenced to now-retired Judge “Casey” Stengel to 60 years in prison. He attempted to withdraw his guilty plea, but his motion were denied. The Illinois’ Innocence Project took Mr. Onsurd’s case and reached out to our office recently seeking to review his case file. Upon retrieving this file form storage and inspecting its contents, it quickly became apparent that many documents were missing from such a very complex and serious case. Several prosecutors began immediately contacting the investigating agencies who assisted in the initial investigation. Over the course of several days, we were able to assemble a more complete case file.
In our review and research, it was and still is our belief that several material documents belonging to this investigation were not disclosed by the assigned prosecutor to the defense in 2007-2008. The prosecutor who handled the initial case is no longer with our office. I immediately contacted Mr. Onsrud’s attorneys and informed them of this discovery and agreed to vacate the conviction to allow this case to be thoroughly investigated before any further action is taken. The State has also asked the Court to release Mr. Onsrud while the case remains pending.
Under the Illinois Rules of Professional Responsibility, the duty of a prosecutor “is to seek justice, not merely to convict.” The State’s Attorney’s Office is the representative of all people, including the defendant, and it is our duty to safeguard the constitutional rights of everyone. This situation was clearly a miscarriage of justice that we could not let go ignored. At a time when our community is seeking transparency and justice, we stand by our commitment to maintain the highest ethical duties required of our profession and will not allow any violation of a defendent’s rights.
In furtherance of this commitment, our office will be conducting an audit of all cases that were handled by this former prosecutor and will be asking our local elected officials to help this effort by assisting in the funding of a Criminal Integrity Unit within the Rock Island County State’s Attorney’s Office.
We extend our gratitude to all of our local investigating agencies who assisted us in obtaining quick and complete records, ASA Hiedi Weller and ASA Kathy Swett for their many hours of work on this matter, and the Illinois’ Innocence Project for their endless efforts on behalf of defendents who may be wrongfully imprisoned.Dora A. Villarreal, Rock Island County State’s Attorney