The saga of four jailed Chicago men cleared of murder charges by a crusading professor and three female students made great copy. Far less attention was paid to the question of how the men could have been convicted and why they had to languish in prison for nearly two decades.
By Alicia C. Shepard
Alicia C. Shepard is a former AJR senior writer and NPR ombudsman.
IT'S A CRISP, SPRING CHICAGO MORNING and a close friend is explaining how to file an income tax extension to Dennis Williams, who at age 40 is paying taxes for the first time. Williams strongly believes he shouldn't have to pay the government a dime after all of the grief and loneliness authorities have inflicted on him. For nearly half of his life Williams lived in a cell the size of a small bathroom, sleeping on a slab of steel, sentenced to die for a crime he didn't commit.
Williams has never married. Never had children. Never held a full time job. Has no pension, no health benefits, no work history to convince potential employers he's worth hiring. No nothing, in his opinion. "They took everything away from me that constitutes the human experience," he says. "If someone offered me a million dollars to become a lawyer, I'd choose to work on a garbage truck instead. That's what I think of our legal system."
A year ago charges were dropped against Williams and three other black men convicted in 1978 of raping and killing a young white woman and murdering her fianc after a tenacious Northwestern University journalism professor and three of his students finally forced the state to admit it had botched the case. Eager to round up suspects in the highly publicized black-on-white murder, law enforcement authorities had quickly arrested and convicted the wrong men--even though evidence existed then that four other men may have committed the crime.
On July 2, 1996, Williams, Kenneth Adams, Verneal Jimerson and William Rainge were freed. After 18 years they finally had the opportunity to recoup the lives they'd lost behind bars.
"Seeing the guys walk into the courtroom on the day they were officially released was so exciting," says Stephanie Goldstein, one of the students who helped clear them. "I'd only seen them in little rooms inside of prison. Seeing them walk in with their attorneys and then walk out was thrilling."
So, at first, was all the media attention focused on then- Northwestern seniors Goldstein, Stacey Delo and Laura Sullivan, then 22. It was an irresistible angle. Three young, white, upper-middle-class students venture into a rough Southside Chicago neighborhood to try to unearth evidence that four black men--two of whom were on death row--had not committed the horrific double murder. Stories about the students appeared in People magazine, Glamour, the National Enquirer, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times. Oprah Winfrey showcased them on national television.
The storyline shifted dramatically when Walt Disney Co. came calling with a million-dollar offer for movie rights. Media attention quickly turned to the petty bickering about who deserved credit for the men's release, who was and who wasn't getting money, and the fact that the professor was no longer speaking to his former students because he felt they shouldn't profit at the men's expense.
But what failed to draw the serious attention of the local and national media, with a few exceptions, was the more important and significant story: How was it that four innocent African Americans could have been wrongly incarcerated for 18 years? Why didn't local detectives investigate a solid tip in 1978 that nearly two decades later led to the four men who actually raped Carol Schmal and shot her and Larry Lionberg in the head?
It's another example of how journalists sometimes focus their attention on the sexy, easy-to-report story while ignoring far more significant issues. It took little effort to zero in on the three students and their professor and to portray them as heroes, then shift to the bitterness that followed when money entered the picture. Examining the more complex and painstaking question of how something like this could have happened would have proven far more difficult.
"I don't fault reporters for educating the public on how these guys got out of prison," Goldstein says. "But no one took the story to the next level, which is really looking into what happened and why they spent so long in prison."
The professor, David Protess, 50, agrees. "I find it very tragic that the energy devoted to this case has been to focus on the media's definition of newsworthy, the students and movie deals," he says, "instead of the larger story: How could the authorities have done this? Where were the reporters on this story and many other stories where they could have played the kind of role that we played?"
WGN anchor Larry Potash, who has reported sporadically on the case, says there are just too many crime stories in Chicago and not enough time. "Chasing down the cops takes a lot of work," he says. "A news department has to flush out the cops, but they don't necessarily have the resources and time, particularly in a city like Chicago, where there's so much going on. But, yeah, the media is at fault for not pursuing the cops and prosecutors."
STEPHANIE GOLDSTEIN SIGNED UP for a course in investigative reporting in the winter semester of 1996. She planned to go to law school, but was intrigued by Protess' course. She had heard how he and five students at Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism had helped free David Dowaliby in 1992 after he had been sentenced to 45 years in prison for murdering his 7-year-old stepdaughter. One student, Carl Ganter, now a photojournalist, was instrumental in finding the girl's uncle, who confessed to Protess and his partner, journalist Rob Warden. The story, based on a book by Protess and Warden, became a TV miniseries in January starring Shannen Doherty.###
During the first class, Protess outlined four death penalty cases in which he felt the wrong men might have been convicted. He explained what kind of investigating would be required and how much work and travel would be involved. The Dennis Williams case, he indicated, would be very time-consuming.
At the second class, after giving the students time to think, Protess asked the students to choose the case that most interested them. Sullivan and Delo gravitated to the Williams case. Goldstein initially picked another one but quickly moved to join the students who chose the Williams case. She's still not sure why she changed her mind.
"I was drawn to [the case] because of the age of the people involved, both those convicted and the victims," says Stacey Delo, who now produces educational videos in St. Louis. "Also, two white people died, and four black men were convicted in a hasty manner."
These were the facts presented to the students in stacks of files: After 2:30 a.m. on May 11, 1978, Schmal, 23, and Lionberg, 29, were kidnapped at gunpoint at a gas station where Lionberg worked in a suburb just south of Chicago. They were driven to an abandoned townhouse in a poor area of Chicago known as Ford Heights, where Schmal was repeatedly raped and then shot twice in the head. Lionberg was taken out back, shot in the head and left to die.
Later that day, Williams, 21, Jimerson, 26, Rainge, 20, and Adams, 20, were arrested after a man living across from the abandoned townhouse called police, saying he had seen Williams and Adams near where the bodies were discovered. It was later proven that he had in fact seen both men, but much earlier in the evening. Jimerson was also in the crowd that gathered after the murder, and was arrested after retrieving his sunglasses from Williams' car. Rainge was implicated by Paula Gray, Adams' girlfriend.
While the men insisted they were innocent, they were nonetheless convicted that fall, largely on the testimony of Gray, who had a long history of mental instability. None of the men had violent pasts, although Williams served time briefly for a property crime. Gray soon recanted, claiming police had badgered her into incriminating the four men. She was convicted of perjury and being an accomplice to the murder and sentenced to 50 years in prison.
What was never investigated in 1978 was information from an informant named Marvin Simpson, who lived in the neighborhood where the killings occurred. Six days after the murder, Simpson provided officers from the East Chicago Heights police department and the Cook County sheriff's office information implicating four other men in the crime. "The police seemed like they were interested in what I was saying," Simpson later told the students, but "I never heard from the police again." (In April one of the men Simpson named was convicted of murdering Schmal and Lionberg, marking the first time in Illinois history that a wrongful murder conviction was reversed and someone else was successfully prosecuted for the same crime.)
Chicago's newspapers and TV news operations also didn't show much interest in the 1978 case. The press accepted the version of law enforcement authorities. "The media assumed what the authorities were telling them was true when the four men were initially arrested," Delo says, "and they didn't do any probing."
Williams can testify to that. "The media at the time of our arrest didn't want to hear anything I had to say," Williams says. "The first person to listen was Rob Warden from the Chicago Lawyer." Williams learned of the legal magazine, which Warden started in 1978, from another prisoner. Both were impressed by its critical coverage of the criminal justice system. Williams wrote a letter, and Warden followed up.
In July 1982, Warden and reporter Margaret Roberts wrote a long story for Chicago Lawyer detailing flaws in the case against Williams and in his legal defense. After the article appeared, Williams and Rainge, who shared a lawyer, had their convictions overturned because of poor legal representation. "I became persuaded early on that [Williams] didn't do it because the prosecutor offered deals to the other defendants to testify against Dennis," says Warden. "None of the defendants would do it. That just rarely happens unless they are innocent."
Gray changed her story again after the state offered to let her out of prison if she testified against Williams and Rainge. She did and also implicated Jimerson. The three were convicted, and Williams and Jimerson were sentenced to die in the electric chair.
Go to Part II