Friday, April 16, 2010

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

Exonerated Illinois death row inmates Darby Tillis (upper left) and Perry Cobb (lower left) were put on trial more times than any other defendant in U.S. history. Here is their story.

On November 13, 1977, Melvin Kanter and Charles Guccion were shot to death during a robbery of a hot-dog stand on Chicago's north side. Three weeks later, a woman named Phyllis Santini went to the police with a story accusing Tillis and Cobb of the crime, claiming she had driven the getaway car. Tillis and Cobb, who did not know each other and knew nothing of the crime, were arrested and charged with the murders.

When Cobb was apprehended - without a warrant - the police discovered he had a watch belonging to one of the victims. Cobb insisted he had recently bought it for $10 from Johnny Brown, Phyllis Santini’s boyfriend. Johnny Brown would later be suspected of being the actual killer.

Throughout the first three trials, the prosecution’s case revolved around the watch (the only physical evidence), Santini’s accusation, and the testimony of Arthur Shields, a bartender at a tavern across the street from the hot-dog stand, who testified that he had seen two black men stand inside his tavern’s door around the time of the homicides.

Two defense witnesses, offered testimony that Phyllis Santini had admitted to committing the murders with Brown and that she expected a reward for testifying against Cobb and Tillis. Santini was in fact paid $1,200. the presiding judge of the first three trials, Thomas J. Maloney refused to allow the testimony of these witnesses even after the defense made an offer of proof.

Judge Maloney, who was later convicted in a federal trial of taking bribes in criminal cases (and was accused of being tough on the defendants who did not offer bribes, like Tillis and Cobb), never instructed the jury to review Santini’s testimony, that of an accomplice witness who could have been charged with the crime herself.

Four years after Cobb and Tillis were sent to death row, the Illinois Supreme Court reversed and remanded their case. The Supreme Court found that Judge Maloney’s refusal to direct the jury with accomplice instruction constituted a judicial error. The Court also found Maloney erred by not allowing the testimony implicating Santini and her boyfriend.

After the reversal, Michael Falconer, a local lawyer, read an investigative story about the Cobb/Tillis case in Chicago Lawyer magazine. Falconer then came forward and reported that he had worked with Phyllis Santini in a factory many years ago. While there, Santini had told him that she and her boyfriend had robbed a restaurant and that her boyfriend had shot someone during the robbery.

Despite Falconer’s story, prosecutors tried Cobb and Tillis two more times. The fourth trial ended in a hung jury, but the fifth - a bench trial - resulted in an acquittal, largely due to Falconer’s testimony implicating Santini and Brown. On January 20, 1987, Darby Tillis and Perry Cobb - after spending eight years of their lives on death row - were finally cleared. In 2001, Illinois Governor George Ryan pardoned both men. Brown and Santini, in spite of all the evidence against them, have never been charged.

Following his release, Perry Cobb found a job as a janitor in a Chicago apartment building, giving up his old singing career due to a loss of confidence following his experience on death row. Darby Tillis became a preacher and formed an organization to help released death row inmates readjust to society. He has actively campaigned for the death penalty moratorium in Illinois and elsewhere. Despite these accomplishments, however, Tillis’s horrific experience on death row will always be with him: “When you get the death penalty, most of us try to stand up and take it like a man,” he later explained. “ Then you get to death row. You’re hit by the stench of Pinesol, feces, urine, body odor, sick odor. You are in the Death House…you’re warehoused for death, treated like contaminated meat to be disposed of. You sit there and await death, and the pain you know will come to you some day.”

Exonerated death row inmate Darby Tillis speak out at the Campaign To End The Death Penalty's National Convention in 2003:

My name is Darby Tillis. I spent nine years, one month and 17 days in the penal system. I was tried five times, more than anyone in the judicial system throughout the United States. I’m part of Illinois’ exonerated--number one. I was released from death row, but I’m not free of death row. Death row is hell, and so is my life like hell. I have not been compensated. Death row lives within me today. It’s alive--the pain, the hurt. Every day is a day of bad memories.

I cannot forget death row. I cannot forget the people who manufactured the lies and manufactured a case against me. There is one happy memory that I cannot forget--my judge, who is now doing 15 years in a federal penitentiary.

George Ryan concluded his tenure as Illinois governor in the most dramatic fashion in the entire history of governors. Governor Ryan issued a blanket commutation for everyone in prison who was under the death penalty. Plus he pardoned four men on death row. For those of us who believed that the death penalty should be abolished, we praised to the highest and celebrated. And for those who supported the death penalty, many screamed in anger and resentment. God used Governor Ryan to save lives and wipe the bloodstains of men from the judicial system.

Abolition of the death penalty will follow, and the system will be changed forever. Judges, prosecutors, policemen will no longer be able to build careers for monetary gain. It’s time to abolish the death penalty. The time is now.

Just the other day, I read in the Chicago Tribune that state Senator Emil Jones believes that a new bill has cleared up the death penalty. The death penalty cannot be cleared up. It is dead wrong. It is too final.

You will not be able to take some little guy out of college, who knows nothing about society and its flaws and who wants to build a career to get a Porsche and raise up his status and buy a home in the suburbs for Susie. Do you think that he’s going to consider some guy who he thinks is no more than number on a legal brief? Do you think he is going to take consideration of his innocence? When he knows that if he finds him guilty, he can get that Porsche and a house in the suburbs for Susie? No. He’s not going to consider.

As long as men’s hearts are corrupt, and their minds are corrupt and crooked, we cannot have a death penalty. As long as alcohol and drugs run rampant in the streets, we cannot have a death penalty. We must abolish the death penalty. It is flawed--too flawed to be fixed. The magnitude of a capital case is too great to be tried without errors. And once the error is found, you cannot be brought back from the grave.

Today, the death penalty continues to be imposed, despite the moratorium on executions. So I say to you tonight, we had a victory. But we want to win the whole war. We must continue to hold rallies and protests and do everything that’s conceivable to force the custodians of the court system to end the madness by taking politics out of the court system. We must end the death penalty, because the death penalty is dead wrong.

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