Dennis Williams was convicted in Illinois in 1978 and sentenced to die.
A young woman and her fiance had been abducted, the young woman raped, and both murdered in an abandoned house. Williams and his friends and co-defendants – Kenneth Adams and Willie Rainge – were residents of the neighborhood where the couple was found and were seen on the street the night of the crime. Along with Verneal Jimerson, Williams, Adams, and Rainge were dubbed the Ford Heights Four.
Williams, Adams and Rainge were tried together in 1978, and represented by an attorney named Archie Weston. The state’s chief witness in the case, Paula Gray, claimed to have been at the scene of the crime with the four men. After her testimony secured indictments of all four men, she recanted and the charges against Jimerson were dropped.
During trial, the state presented eyewitness testimony placing Williams, Adams and Rainge near the scene of the crime at the time of the crime. There was a major timing inconsistency in this witness’ account, but Weston failed to point it out to the jury. A state expert testified improperly that a hair found in Williams’ car microscopically “matched” Williams’ hair, saying: “Just like if you drop two dollar bills and you see dollar bills on the floor. You see two one dollar bills. It’s obvious.” Microscopic hair comparison can never prove a conclusive match, but Weston failed to challenge this evidence. Hair evidence cannot be individualized based on microscopic analysis. Because there is not adequate empirical data on the frequency of various class characteristics in human hair, it is impossible to say definitively that strands of hair “matched” a particular person. There was also incorrect serology testimony in the case. The three men were convicted; Adams received a 75-year sentence, Rainge a life sentence, and Williams was sent to death row.
Williams won a new trial in 1985. Gray, who had been convicted as an accomplice and for perjury after her recantation, reverted to her original story and testified against Williams to gain her own release from prison. The charges against Jimerson were also refiled and both men were convicted and sentenced to death.
Archie Weston would later admit during a hearing in a different case that he was so stressed during the trial of Williams, Adams and Rainge that he couldn’t think straight. He was disbarred for fraud committed in another case.
A group of journalism students took up the Ford Heights Four case in 1996. They found a witness who had tipped police to the identity of the real killers shortly after the crime. The police never investigated the tip. The investigating team also found two of the three men that were responsible for the crime, who eventually confessed. The third was deceased. DNA testing corroborated the confessions. Williams, cleared through DNA and the investigation of persistent Northwestern students, was released in 1996, having spent a total of over 17 years in prison and death row.
Charge: Murder, Rape
Conviction: Murder, Rape
Sentence: Death and 60 years
Incident Date: 05/11/1978
Conviction Date: 10/20/1978
Exoneration Date: 07/02/1996
Accused Pleaded Guilty: No
Contributing Causes of Conviction: Eyewitness Misidentification, False Confessions or Admissions, Inadequate Defense, Unvalidated or Improper Forensic Science
Death Penalty Case: Yes
Race of Exoneree: African American
Race of Victim: Caucasian
Status: Exonerated by DNA
Alternative Perpetrator Identified: Yes
Type of Crime: Homicide-related, Sex Crimes
Forensic Science at Issue: Flawed Serology, Hair Analysis