Saturday, April 24, 2010

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

Carl Lawson - became the state's ninth exonerated death row prisoner. After 8-year-old Terrence Jones was found murdered in an abandoned church near his East St. Louis home on July 27, 1989, a friend of his mother, Carl E. Lawson, was arrested because his bloody shoe print was found at the scene.was convicted and sentenced to death in 1989 for the murder of an 8-year-old boy in East St. Louis. After the Illinois Supreme Court reversed his conviction and ordered a new trial, Lawson got a hung jury in a second trial and was acquitted at a third trial, in 1996.

At the trial, the state contended the print had been left by the killer, but Lawson said he made the print when he arrived at the church after the child's body was discovered. Unfortunately, Lawson, who was represented at trial by a former prosecutor who had handled his arraignment, did not have funds to hire an independent expert to examine the print. He was convicted by a St. Clair County jury and sentenced to death, but he won a new trial based on his lawyer's conflict of interest and the trial judge's denial of resources to hire forensic experts. By this time, an alternative suspect had been identified and the prosecution's shoe print theory was called into question. Still prosecutors tried Lawson two more times.

There were two retrials. At the first, the jury deadlocked, with 11 of its 12 members favoring acquittal. At the second a year later, Lawson was finally found not guilty. The alternative suspect has since died, without ever being investigated. Lawson's exoneration was unusual because the error was corrected without the help of volunteers outside the system. After his release, Lawson moved to Missouri, where he has had a difficult time finding steady employment. "It's hard," he says. "Not very many people want to hire a man who's been on Death Row."

Steven Smith was charged with the crime of killing Virdeen Willis Jr., an off-duty assistant warden at the Illinois penitentiary in Pontiac, who was shot to death outside the Shamrock Lounge on the south side of Chicago. Mr. Smith, who had been drinking in the bar was identified by a woman named Debrah Caraway, who claimed to have witnessed the murder. It was Caraway's testimony that ultimately sent Smith to death row, but that testimony was dubious for several reasons.

First, Caraway had been smoking crack cocaine. Second, she claimed Willis was alone when the killer stepped out of shadows and fired the fatal shot, but two other witnesses said they were standing beside Willis when he was murdered. Third, Caraway's boyfriend, Pervis (Pepper) Bell, was an alternative suspect in the murder. Finally, Caraway, according to her account, was across the street when the crime occurred and, while she positively identified Smith, the two persons who were standing beside Willis were within only two or three feet of the killer and could not identify Smith.

On February 19, 1999, the Illinois Supreme Court held that Caraway's testimony was less reliable than the contradictory testimony of the other witnesses and reversed the conviction outright, ordering Smith's release from prison. Smith's case is unusual in that the error was corrected without the intervention of volunteers outside the system.

In August of 2002, Gov. George Ryan issued pardons to two former Death Row inmates, based on innocence to Steven Smith and Carl Lawson, both of whom had been convicted of murder and sentenced to death but were later exonerated, clearing the way for them to seek compensation from the state for their years in prison.

Ronald Jones spent 8-years on death row for a crime he did not commit.

On March 10, 1985, a 28-year-old mother of three was raped and murdered in an abandoned motel on the south side of Chicago. Seven months later, Chicago Police Detectives Steven Hood and John Markham obtained a signed confession to the crime from Ronald Jones, a 34-year-old alcoholic who lived in the neighborhood where the crime occurred.

The detectives claimed the confession was voluntary, but Jones claimed he signed it because he had been beaten by Hood and Markham. Jones testified that Hood struck him in the head three or four times with a black object about six inches long before Markham said, "Don't hit him like this because he will bruise" and proceeded to punch Jones repeatedly in the stomach.

Although the confession was dubious — it asserted that the victim was a prostitute when in fact she had no history of prostitution — Cook County Circuit Court Judge John E. Morrissey held it admissible at Jones's 1989 trial. No physical evidence linked Jones to the crime, but the signed confession said Jones had ejaculated; the state claimed that semen recovered from the victim was too small a quantity to test. Jones was convicted by a jury and sentenced to death by Morrissey.

In 1994, Assistant Illinois Appellate Defender Richard Cunningham asked Morrissey to authorize DNA testing with technology that had not existed at the time of Jones's trial. Morrissey denied the request and, when reminded that prosecutors originally had contended Jones was the source of the semen recovered from the victim, snidely responded, "Save arguments like that for the press. They love it. I don't."

Cunningham enlisted attorney Gary O. Pritchard to work on an appeal to the Illinois Supreme Court, and based on their briefs, the Supreme Court reversed Morrissey, ordering the testing. In 1997, the DNA testing established conclusively that Jones was not the source of the semen recovered from the victim. Even then, prosecutors refused to abandon the case. They stalled Jones's release until, facing a retrial, they finally dropped all charges against him on May 17, 1999.

"Right now, my life is moving in slow motion. It's really a strange thing for me to be locked up for 15 years and now to be sent back out here in society with no income.

I'm just supposed to move on, and it's not easy. I'm getting by day by day, but I'm going to survive." -- Ronald Jones answering the question, "What's your life like now?"
Ronald Jones speaks out.


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