John Willis was charged with committing a string of five armed robberies and rapes. The crimes occurred between 1989 and 1990. Based on eyewitness identification, Willis was convicted of two of the 1990 crimes. The crimes occurred about one block from each other in Chicago, Illinois.
In the first case, the victim was attacked and raped orally. She spat the assailant’s semen into a toilet paper wrapper that was recovered by police. As he went to trial in 1991, Willis’s defense and the prosecution both requested that testing be performed on the wrapper, which was tested at the Chicago Police Department’s Serology Unit. Conventional serological testing on the wrapper revealed that Willis was excluded as a contributor to the stain. These results, however, were never supplied to the defense. Instead, laboratory technician Pamela Fish reported the tests as inconclusive. The actual results of her testing were not turned over despite specific requests from the defense.
Willis was convicted in 1992 of this crime. In 1994, another man, Dennis McGruder, was arrested for a 1992 rape and robbery that displayed the same modus operandi that the assailant in Willis’s case exhibited. Willis’s appeal based on this evidence, however, was denied.
Willis was convicted of the second similar crime in 1993. He was barred from presenting any evidence linking McGruder to the crime for which he was being tried. McGruder had been arrested for a string of rapes and robberies and it was later revealed that he had been living in the middle of the area where this crime spree occurred. Additionally, the judge did not allow Willis to testify about a conversation he had with McGruder in jail where McGruder admitted his guilt in the crime for which Willis had been convicted and the crime at hand.
DNA testing on the remaining evidence eventually exculpated Willis, who was released from prison in 1999. He was exonerated the same year. DNA testing results not only exonerated him, they pointed to Dennis McGruder, who pleaded guilty to two of the crimes.
Charge: Sexual Assault (2 cts.), Armed Robbery (2 cts.)
Conviction: Sexual Assault (2 cts.), Armed Robbery (2 cts.)
Sentence: 100 years
Incident Date: 05/02/1990
Conviction Date: 02/13/1992
Exoneration Date: 03/15/1999
Accused Pleaded Guilty: No
Contributing Causes of Conviction: Eyewitness Misidentification, Unvalidated or Improper Forensic Science
Death Penalty Case: No
Race of Exoneree: African American
Race of Victim: African American
Status: Exonerated by DNA
Alternative Perpetrator Identified: Yes
Type of Crime: Sex Crimes
Forensic Science at Issue: Flawed Serology