Editor’s note: This story originally ran in the Belleville News-Democrat on Nov. 17, 2010
A St. Clair County jury on Tuesday found Darrell Lane not guilty on all three murder counts in the 2005 triple slayings at a Belleville hair salon.
Jurors deliberated for about four hours before returning to Circuit Judge Milton Wharton’s courtroom to deliver the verdicts.
As the jury foreman read “not guilty” as the name of each of the three victims was read, cheers went up in the courtroom from dozens of Lane’s supporters and relatives.
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“I feel like it is a dream come true,” said Jeffrey Lomax, 19, of St. Louis, who said Lane is his best friend. “Now we can go home and be peaceful.”
Before Lane walked out of the St. Clair County Jail, a black man who described himself as a relative of Lane’s sat under the American flag, singing, “Tell old Pharaoh, let my people go.”
A cheer went out as Lane, whose nickname is “Rell,” walked out of the jail about 4:30 p.m., friends and family members grabbing and hugging him. Lane seemed stunned; it was the first time he was free from custody in 4 1/2 years.
When a reporter asked him his plans, he looked shocked and disoriented, then he smiled and said, “I don’t even know. ... I’m ready to go.”
He was hustled off into a truck headed west to Missouri.
“I just want to hug him and kiss him,” said Susan Lane, Darrell’s mother. “That’s my immediate plan.”
Lane visited with family members at his grandmother’s home hours after his release, then went for a drive with his cousin.
“He wanted to see the streets,” said his sister, Kathy Lane. “He’s been in so long, he just wants to see what the outside looks like.”
St. Clair County State’s Attorney Robert Haida, now a circuit judge-elect, called the verdict, “Obviously, extremely disappointing.” He insisted that Lane was at the murder scene in 2005 but did not act alone.
He said prosecutors “struggled” with the case for years while Lane, who was 16 at the time of the murders, waited in jail for trial.
“Our hearts go out to the victims,” Haida said. “We have always believed that there are other suspects. We never believed that Darrell Lane acted alone.”
Haida said that while the case involving Lane, who is now 21, is closed, “the (investigative) case is still open. Our actions will be dictated by the evidence.”
The state based its case on Lane’s bloody fingerprint found in the salon owner’s stolen 2000 Nissan Pathfinder, which was found abandoned in North St. Louis two days after the murders. Lane was charged with first-degree murder for the stabbing deaths of hairdresser Cooney, 62, Doris Fischer, 79, and her sister Dorothy Bone, 82, on March 2, 2005, in Cooney’s home-based salon in west Belleville.
Members of the Fischer and Bone families declined to comment immediately after the verdicts.
“A bloody fingerprint. There is no more powerful evidence than a bloody fingerprint,” said Assistant State’s Attorney Jim Piper.
The defense argued the fingerprint was left after the blood stain. They also pointed to Samuel L. Johnson as a better suspect than Lane. Police reports said that Johnson made phone calls to Cooney before the murders, then spent a large amount of cash on jewelry and cars immediately after the murders.
But Andrew Liefer, Lane’s defense lawyer, said during closing arguments that the fingerprint proved nothing, adding Lane could have left his fingerprint hours after the murders when he was joyriding in the stolen sport utility vehicle. Police, under intense pressure to solve the crimes, found the fingerprint, then connected it to a learning-disabled 16-year-old from north St. Louis, Liefer said.
“We are very surprised and pleased by this verdict,” Liefer said. “This young man will now have a chance to get on with his life.”
The defense also produced a witness who testified that Johnson came to the hair salon days before the murders and told Cooney “I want my money.”
Johnson was never charged with the murders. He is free after being convicted of attempted burglary for kicking in the back door of Cooney’s home-based salon Dec. 3, 2003.
After the murders, police didn’t recover any of the stolen items, such as jewelry or cash, from Lane, but Johnson purchased a car for $1,400 five days after the murders and pawned a bracelet resembling one owned by Cooney for $200 the day of the murders.
“I feel bad for the (Fischer, Bone and Cooney) families because they had the real killer and they let him go,” said Monica Rose, Lane’s cousin.
Damone Johnson, 41, of St. Louis, who is Lane’s stepbrother, said he hopes Lane has learned a lesson about life, staying in school and getting ahead.
“God gave him a second chance. The jurors came up with the right verdict,” Johnson said. “I hope this teaches him a lesson to go to school and get ahead and not get into anybody’s car.”