Saturday, April 10, 2010

Meet the Exonerated: Illinois's Death Row, Part Two

"For that to happen even once is unjust. For that to happen thirteen times is shameful and beyond belief." -- Gov. George Ryan

In the late 1970s, during a tough-on-crime push, politicians were putting pressure on police to convict someone for the double murder and rape of a white couple at a gas station. In what became known as the Ford Heights Four case, police quickly arrested four black men from the poverty-stricken Ford Heights neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago. Dennis Williams (top left), who died of a brain aneurysm six years after his exoneration, Verneal Jimerson (bottom left), Kenneth Adams and Willie Rainge were all convicted and sentenced to death for the 1978 double murder, despite the fact that there was no physical evidence linking the four to the crime.

In 1983, Rob Warden exposed serious problems with the case, but it took another 14 years to exonerate the innocent men, resulting in a total of 18 years on Illinois' Death Row for a crime they didn't commit. The exoneration came about as a result of monumental efforts by a legal team that included Lawrence C. Marshall and a student investigative team headed by Northwestern Professor David Protess.

By the time the men were freed, DNA had excluded all of the men. Moreover, the investigative team had uncovered evidence leading to the arrest of the actual killers, who eventually confessed, were convicted, and were sentenced to prison.

The miscarriage of justice resulted from coercion of one witness for the prosecution, perjury by another who had a financial incentive to lie, false forensic testimony, and police and prosecutorial misconduct. In contrast to the lack of moral character exhibited by those in authority, Verneal Jimerson, left, turned down several opportunities to get out of prison by testifying against the other three defendants.

The story of the Ford Heights Four is told in a book Rob Warden co-authored with Northwestern University Professor David Protess — A Promise of Justice, Hyperion (1998).

So egregious was the official misconduct that in 1999 Cook County settled lawsuits filed by the Ford Heights Four for $36 million — the largest civil rights payment in U.S. history.

Verneal Jimerson and Dennis Williams were two of the so-called Ford Heights Four, a south suburb in Cook County. The primary testimony against them came from a seventeen-year-old girl, with an IQ of less than sixty who police said was an accomplice in the murder of a couple. Seventeen years later, Jimerson, Williams and two others serving lesser sentences were released after new DNA tests revealed that none of them were linked to the crime. Later that year, two other men confessed to the crime and were [put in] prison. Seventeen years! Seventeen years! Can you imagine serving even one day on Death Row for a crime you did not commit? -- Gov. George Ryan
A list of all Illinois exonerations

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