Elkhart man exonerated after spending 16 years in prison for wrongful conviction

NOW: Elkhart man exonerated after spending 16 years in prison for wrongful conviction

ELKHART, Ind. - For 16 years, Andrew Royer sat in prison convicted of a murder he didn't commit, but on Monday, Royer was exonerated, and his family says their nightmare is finally over.

"We're very thankful for the process that has taken place to bring Andy to this point, to bring his freedom back to him, and join our family," Michael Pennington, Royer's father, said at a news conference Wednesday. 

"I had a lot of stress on me and I'm a whole different person now," Royer said of his time behind bars while appealing his conviction. 

Royer was wrongfully convicted in the 2002 murder of 94-year-old Helen Sailor. She was killed on Thanksgiving Day in her high-rise Elkhart apartment. Royer and another woman, Lana Canen, were both convicted of her murder.

However, Canen's conviction was vacated in 2012 because a fingerprint used in the trial to convict her was found not to be hers. 

Regardless, Canen and Royer were each sentenced to 55 years in prison. Royer served more than a decade and a half, but now he is a free man.

"How could this happen in America?" Jimmy Gurule, the Director of Notre Dame's newly created Exoneration Justice Clinic (EJC), shouted to reporters at the news conference. "How could an innocent man be wrongfully convicted?"

Elliot Slosar, an adjunct prof in Notre Dame's law school explained how it happened, laying out the facts of the case. But ultimately, he said Royer was the victim of a system that took advantage of him.

"Because a detective, Carl Conway, interrogated Andy Royer over the course of two days without recording it and coerced him into a false confession," Slosar said. 

Gurule and Slosar said Royer has an intellectual disability that makes him vulnerable, adding he has the mind of a child.

The two have been working with Notre Dame law students in the EJC to help Royer gain his freedom.

"Each of these students, and every member of our team, has spent thousands of hours investigating," Slosar said. 

Gurule and Slosar added this is a day of reckoning for the Elkhart Police Department, where Conway is still employed. 

They're calling for the firing of Conway, and for the Elkhart Police Department and the Elkhart County Prosecutor's Office to apologize and admit they were wrong in convicting Royer. 

"What confidence should the citizens of Elkhart County have in the criminal justice system in Elkhart County?" Gurule shouted. "I think it places a cloud over that office."

But for one family, a cloud now lifts as their long ordeal comes to an end.

Royer becomes the fifth person from Elkhart to be exonerated, ABC57's investigative team reached out to the Elkhart Police Department for comment.

We were sent this statement:

"On April 8, 2021, the Court of Appeals of Indiana issued a published opinion reference the Successive Post-Conviction Relief evidentiary hearing, which was held on in October of 2019. The release described some of Carl Conway’s testimony as contradicting, misrepresenting and false when comparing to portions of his testimony from the 2005 criminal trial. Upon receiving the publishing, Chief of Police, Kris Seymore, opened an internal investigation, conducted by the Office of Professional Standards, regarding Carl Conway’s involvement in the Andrew Royer investigation. Furthermore, Chief Seymore placed Lieutenant Carl Conway on administrative leave, with pay, pending the outcome of the internal investigation. Due to the internal investigation, the Elkhart Police Department cannot discuss or provide further details. Upon completion of the internal investigation, Professional Standards will forward the investigation to the Captains Review Board for evaluation and review. After the Captains Review Board has completed their review, the investigation will be sent to the chief for review. We anticipate the process being completed in the next few weeks."

We also reached out to the Elkhart County Prosecutor's Office for comment, we have not heard back.

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