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The Court Knew She Didn’t Commit the Murder. They Sentenced Her for It Anyway.

After nearly 15 years behind bars, Erika Ray is getting another day in court.

Jada Lesure, Lauren Stumblingbear and Paris Knox stand outside a Cook County courthouse on August 3, 2021.

After nearly 15 years behind bars, 39-year-old mother and survivor Erika Ray will soon get another day in court to attempt to gain her freedom.

Ray is currently sentenced to remain in prison until 2049. But on August 3, she appeared in court to argue that her defense attorneys provided ineffective assistance at her 2010 trial and that one of the actions for which she was convicted — armed robbery — did not occur at all. On September 1, she will return to court for closing arguments. If the court rules in her favor on either argument, Ray could return to her family sooner.

A “Felony Murder” Charge for a Death She Didn’t Cause

In 2006, Erika Ray was a 23-year-old single mother working as a server at Leona’s, a Chicago restaurant with several locations.

Ray had had problems with one of her supervisors, Corey Ebenezer, for months. It started, she told Truthout, when he obtained her phone number from the restaurant’s records and called her at 2 a.m. “I told him, ‘Don’t ever call my phone again.’”

At work, she said, Ebenezer repeatedly asked her out and followed her around. She reported his behavior to the shift manager, who spoke to Ebenezer. But his behavior didn’t stop, she recalled. “It created a more hostile environment.” Ebenezer would prevent her from serving tables where she might earn more in tips; other times, she said, he slowed her orders, causing customers to complain. “Unless he thought I was being nice, he was aggressive,” she said.

On June 14, 2006, Ebenezer and Ray had a dispute about whether she could serve a party of 30 by herself. “What do you mean I can’t have the table?” Ray recalled saying. “It’s in my section.”

Ebenezer ordered her to go home. When Ray refused, he called the restaurant manager, claiming that she was insubordinate. Upon arriving, the manager told her that she could be transferred to another restaurant, but could no longer work at that location. Ray refused, feeling that she was being penalized for being harassed; she was fired.

That night, when Ray picked up her seven-year-old daughter Jada from her grandmother’s house, two of her cousins were there. After she told them what had happened, one cousin, 18-year-old Paris Gosha, decided to physically confront Ebenezer, bringing along his 14-year-old brother, and two friends. Unbeknownst to Ray or her cousins, one of those friends, 19-year-old Lorenzo Wilson, was carrying a gun. Their plan, she told Truthout, was to confront Ebenezer about his actions, but not to rob or kill him. “I didn’t even know anyone had a gun,” she said.

Ray drove the group to Leona’s, but stayed in the car. Once inside, the planned confrontation went awry and Wilson shot Ebenezer, who later died. Ray, her cousins and Wilson were arrested and charged with armed robbery and first-degree murder. (The fifth person was never charged.)

Illinois law allows prosecutors to pursue a first-degree murder charge (also known as “felony murder”) if a death occurs during a crime, such as robbery. Under felony murder, the person can be charged even if they did not cause the death or, like Ray, were not present.

In 2010, after three years in Chicago’s Cook County Jail, Ray and Wilson went to trial. Shortly before her trial began, Ray recalled that her attorney, Paul Christiansen, told her that the state had made a plea offer of 21 years at 50 percent (meaning she would only have to spend 10.5 years in prison), but he had turned it down because he thought she wouldn’t take it. (Christiansen is now dead.) He also told her not to talk about Ebenezer’s harassment because it would be construed as victim-blaming.

At trial, Gosha, who had pled guilty to robbery and was sentenced to 30 years at 50 percent, testified that, though their intention had simply been to beat up Ebenezer, he had taken cash from the restaurant.

The court instructed the jury that, if they found that Ray had intended an unlawful act, such as armed robbery, and that Ebenezer was killed by one of the people involved in that act, that would be sufficient to find her guilty of murder. Following these instructions, the jury convicted Ray of armed robbery and murder.

Ray was sentenced to 42 years in prison (with a 22-year sentence to run concurrently, or at the same time). Her earliest release date is 2049. (Wilson was convicted and sentenced to 75 years.)

Ray’s Fight for Freedom

Ever since she arrived in prison, Ray has been thinking about the plea deal that her lawyer never communicated to her, which would have allowed her to come home after 10.5 years. Had her attorney told her in advance, she told Truthout in a call from prison, she would have accepted and would now be home. Although she realized that some of her actions had set into motion the events that led to Ebenezer’s death, she knew her sentence was unjust. “I felt like I should have a level of accountability,” she stated. “But 42 years doesn’t salvage the situation.”

After being assigned another attorney, she asked him to file a motion of discovery for any plea offers made before trial.

A 2017 hearing uncovered a state record of a discussion with the original prosecuting attorney, who had made an offer. But the specifics of the offer had not been documented.

Ray also filed a post-conviction petition. In 2021, a Cook County court agreed to hear her petition on two issues — whether her original attorneys told her about the prosecutor’s offer for a 21-year sentence at 50 percent (or 10.5 years in prison) if she pled guilty to armed robbery and, paradoxically, whether an armed robbery, on which her conviction and prison sentence hangs, even occurred.

At the August 3 hearing, Victor Erbring, the co-counsel in Ray’s original defense, testified that only one plea offer had been made — a 20- to 40-year sentence at 100 percent (meaning she would serve the full sentence) — and that Ray had declined it. Ray told Truthout that she was never offered such a plea. Erbring, now an assistant district attorney in Travis County, Texas, did not return Truthout’s request for clarification.

At that same hearing, Paris Gosha, who had been paroled in March 2021, testified that he had perjured himself at trial to keep his younger brother from being charged as an adult. (The teen was charged as a juvenile and sentenced to five years in juvenile prison.) There had been no robbery either planned or committed that night, he stated.

“It was just supposed to be a fight,” Gosha told Truthout. “A fight is something that everybody can walk away from. No one had any intention of killing someone.” He declined to discuss the specifics inside the restaurant.

He said that, though he was a state witness, he hadn’t intended to testify against Ray and Wilson.

“I did what I had to do to get out of that situation,” he said, and what he felt he had to do was confess to a robbery that did not happen. At the time, he had reasoned, “If I said I took something — and no one knew that I took it and I didn’t split the money — then they wouldn’t charge no one else. It [the charge] won’t fall on nobody else’s head.”

Gosha’s testimony helped convict Ray and Wilson.

He reiterated to Truthout what he had testified at the August 3, 2021 court date — no one took anything from the restaurant. Also on August 3, Ray’s shift manager, who had not been called to the stand at the original trial, testified that she had been called into the restaurant after the shooting and found the register still full of cash. She also testified that Ray had complained to her about Ebenezer’s behavior and that she had witnessed it.

“I Was Part of the Movement That Was There for Me”

Erika Ray hugs her daughter
Jada Lesure hugs her mother, Erika Ray, during a pre-pandemic visit organized by Mothers United Against Violence and Incarceration.

Three dozen supporters filled the court on August 3. Among them were women who had been imprisoned with Ray — and whom she had helped during their time behind bars.

Paris Knox is one of them. As reported previously, Knox was convicted and sentenced to 40 years for the 2005 death of her ex-boyfriend after he attacked her. After grassroots organizing by advocates, the conviction was vacated and Knox was released.

Knox and Ray met in 2007 at the Cook County Jail, where both were incarcerated awaiting trial. They were assigned to the same judge and transported to court together and, later, placed in the same housing unit. They reconnected at the Dwight Correctional Center, where both were imprisoned after sentencing. In 2013, both were moved to Logan Correctional Center when the state of Illinois shuttered Dwight.

Women were unable to get phone calls, mail (including legal mail) or access the commissary or the prison store. None had been restored by Knox’s 36th birthday two weeks later. To cheer her up, Ray suggested that they play Monopoly. While they were playing, another woman came to their table, demanding attention. When she didn’t get it, she tossed the board and all its pieces.

Knox and the attention-seeker fought, despite Ray’s efforts to calm them. Physical fights are prohibited in prison; both were sent to segregation, or solitary confinement, for 14 days. When they returned to the housing unit, Ray had them sit down, talk through their disagreement and apologize to each other. That, Knox said, was the type of person Ray is.

Ray was also, Knox recalled, “a genius in the law library,” helping women with their post-conviction petitions. Some had already had their petitions denied by the courts, but with Ray’s help, were able to redraft their petitions to have their cases heard.

In 2017, after three years in jail and 10 years in prison, Knox’s conviction and 40-year sentence were vacated due to ineffective assistance of counsel. Kim Foxx, the state’s attorney, agreed to a deal in which Knox pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, was given time served and released two days later on February 15, 2018. Ray counseled Knox through those last two days as Knox worried about reentering a drastically changed world. Ray, still with decades on her sentence, reassured her friend. “She told me, ‘You’re going home. You’re going to be fine,’” Knox said.

Three years later, for Ray’s hearing, Knox made t-shirts with Ray’s face and the words “Free Erika.” She had two special shirts made for Ray’s daughter and toddler grandson: “Free My Mom” and “Free My Grandma.” Of the three dozen supporters who attended the hearing, one-third sported “Free Erika” shirts that day. For Knox, the moment was profound, not only because she could see her friend again, but she said, “I was part of the movement that was there for me when I was behind these walls.”

Lauren Stumblingbear, who was released from Logan prison in July, also sported a “Free Erika” shirt that day. Stumblingbear met Ray at Logan when she joined its Helping Paws Program, in which women trained therapy dogs for veterans and children with disabilities. The two quickly became friends and Ray, who had been imprisoned for six years by then, frequently helped Stumblingbear navigate her guilt and helplessness at not being with her family.

During Stumblingbear’s incarceration, her mother was diagnosed with cancer. She died in April 2020. “I never had a chance to make it home to her,” Stumblingbear told Truthout. Ray listened and talked with Stumblingbear, counseling her through her grief and guilt. “There were some nights I don’t know how I could have made it through,” she said. Ray also comforted her through her cousin’s death the following year.

When COVID ravaged the prison in late 2020, Stumblingbear took care of Ray after both women contracted the disease and were moved to the COVID unit. Ray, who has Lupus, could barely walk, dress or shower. Stumblingbear cared for her, making her food and ensuring that she ate, helping her dress and make her bed (a requirement in prison) each morning.

Also present in court on August 3 was Jada Lesure, Ray’s daughter. Lesure was seven when Ray turned herself in to the police, telling her daughter she had to go away for a while before leaving the girl with her grandmother. Lesure was too young to attend the 2010 court proceedings — or even grasp her grandmother’s descriptions of them. The post-conviction hearing was the first time Lesure, now 21, attended court. It was also the first time she had seen her mother since March 2021 when COVID stopped prison visits. Visits have resumed, but Lesure has not yet been able to make the 175-mile trek from Chicago to Logan. “I hadn’t seen her in a whole year,” Lesure told Truthout. “It felt good to see her even though I couldn’t hug her.”

On September 1, Ray will return to court for closing arguments. If the court agrees that no armed robbery took place, it may vacate that conviction and resentence Ray to fewer than 42 years.

If the court rules that her counsel was ineffective in not communicating the initial plea offer, Ray could be resentenced to that uncommunicated offer of 20 years at 50 percent, entitling her release.

If that happens, said Lesure, “it would be like a new beginning. I hadn’t had a mom since I was seven years old. It would complete my life.”

For Ray, resentencing could mean not just a second chance, but the possibility of reaching out to the people she hurt. In February of this year, Ebenezer’s fiancée wrote her a letter, wanting to know what had happened that fatal night. But Illinois law prevents incarcerated people from communicating with their victims and victims’ families. If she were released, Ray reflected, “there could be a real reconciliation. [State’s Attorney] Kim Foxx ran on a platform of transformative justice. This is the opportunity for that.”

Foxx’s office declined to comment about Ray’s petition and potential resentencing.

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