Finding Judgement in Misjustice

The Epiphany of Corruption in Chicago's Criminal Courts

The Case of The Ford Heights Four

1996 Ford Heights, Illinois - Four African American men, known as the Ford Heights Four were released after spending 65 years in prison for a crime they did not commit. Willie Rainge recounts his exoneration, "I thought I was going to be happy, but you want to know the truth? It's not easy” (Mills).

In the Early morning of May 11, 1978, the couple of Lawrence Lionberg and Carol Schmal were kidnapped in Homewood, Illinois where they lived. They were found a day later in a predominately black neighborhood called Ford Heights in Illinois. Lionberg and Schmal were both murdered and Schmal was raped. A false tip to the police led to the arrest of Willie Rainge, Dennis Williams, Verneal Jimerson, and Kenneth Adams. On May 16, Paula Gray confessed to the Grand Jury that she witnessed the rape and murder of Lionberg and Schmal by the four accused men. However, a month later on June 19, Gray confessed again that she was drugged by the police and told what to say. Jimerson's charges were dropped because his association with the crime was only from Gray's story. Rainge, Williams, Adams, and now Gray were charged with the crime. All three men and Gray were convicted in their trials. Their convictions relied heavily on the testimony of David Jackson who allegedly heard Rainge and Williams confess to committing the crime in jail. Williams was sentenced to death, Rainge to life, Adams to 75 years and Gray to 50 years. (Center on Wrongful Convictions Northwestern University)

In 1982 Rainge and Williams were granted new trials because their lawyer was charged with fraud. Although, prosecutors then made Gray a deal to release her if she testified against Rainge, Williams, and Jimerson. Rainge and Williams were convicted again, Rainge for life and Williams to death. Jimerson was convicted and earned 75 years in jail.

Later in 1994, David Walker admitted to lying in Williams, Adams, and Rainge's first trial. He confessed that Wiliams and Rainge’s jail conversation was false. Walker admitted the prosecutors gave him a deal against charges he was facing at the time. So in 1995, the Illinois Supreme Court granted Jimerson another trial due Walker's perjury.

Meanwhile, a team of Northwestern journalism students, under the supervision of Professor David Protess, had found a police report saying that within a week of the crime a witness informed the police that they had arrested the wrong men. The witness held credible evidence and eye witness testimony to prove his claim. This report was never given to the defense or filed into action. In 1996 DNA testing revealed that Jimerson, Adams, Williams, and Rainge were not the criminals of the crime. In July of 1996 the charges against the four men were dropped. In 1999 the four men received $36 million after settling a lawsuit against the Cook County court. (National Registry of Exonerations)

All four men now live with their families in homes paid for by the relief money from the Cook County court. Specifically, Dennis Williams became a leader in promoting the innocence project. Although when hidden from the public eye, Williams struggled. "His inner world was increasingly dominated by fears and suspicions. He was haunted by flashbacks to life in an 6' by 10' cell near the death chamber and the ghosts of friends lost to the executioner" (Protess). Williams often drank and smoked to calm his racing mind. His friends and family watched as Williams sank into a black hole. In 2003 Williams was found dead in his home. The most likely cause of death was from a brain aneurism. Kenneth Adams remembers Williams, "The system didn't murder Dennis on death row, but they managed to kill him anyway" (Protess).

Parallels to Contemporary Literature

Actions Resulting From Fear

Fear can paralyze any human brain. Often fear can bring out the very best in a person or the worst. In Arthur Miller's "The Crucible", acting out of fear is a prominent theme.

In "The Crucible" many of the characters are afraid of getting accused of witchcraft so the characters acted out desperately to save themselves from future accusations. Specifically, when Abigail knew that her actions in the woods could lead to accusations she acted out to protect herself. Abigail says, "Now look you. All of you. We danced. And Tituba conjured Ruth Putnam’s dead sisters. And that is all. And mark this. Let either of you breathe a word, or the edge of a word, about the other things, and I will come to you in the black of some terrible night and I will bring a pointy reckoning that will shudder you"(Miller 1034). Abigail and the rest of the town knew that committing witchcraft is a high offense. Abigail feared that if her actions are exposed she will be accused of witchcraft. In this quote Abigail is vulnerable and she recklessly threatened those that had knowledge of her actions instead of rethinking another approach to her issue.

Fear can also paralyze one’s good instincts leading to behavior that does not draw attention to oneself. “The Crucible” presents this through the character, Mary Warren, when she admits that she followed Abigail’s pretense to stay off of Danforth’s radar. Warren says, “I - I cannot tell how, but I did. I heard the other girls screaming, and you, Your Honor, you seemed to believe them, and it were only sport in the beginning, sir, but then the whole world cried spirits, spirits, and I promise you, Mr. Danforth, I only thought I saw them but I did not”(Miller 1087). Mary admits that she was scared of standing out because the whole village was persecuting witches. Even though Warren admits she did not see spirits she still followed the village’s lead. Warren was driven from fear to blend with her village to stay hidden. This quote shows how fear can push you to join the masses even though your beliefs do not support your actions.

Danforth can be considered another example of disregarding his beliefs to give in to his fears. Danforth feared rethinking his actions because he had already sent so many to their deaths. “Twelve are already executed; the names of these seven given out, and the village expects to see them die this morning. Postponement now speaks a floundering on my part; reprieve or pardon must cast doubt upon the guilt of them that died until now”(Miller 1102). The quote reveals that Danforth fears lacking credibility, so he believes he must stand by his previous actions to justify himself. His fear of losing his respect as an authority figure fogs his judgement making him unable to make a correct decision.

Fear leaking into people’s actions can also be seen throughout the case of the Ford Heights Four. In many incidents the prosecution knew their witnesses were lying during their testimony. The prosecution even encouraged their witnesses to lie. And even with the corruption that sneaked into the trials of the Ford Heights Four, the men were still convicted. Many years after the exoneration of the men, Scott Arthur who was a prosecutor in the Ford Heights Four case, still believed the men were guilty. When Arthur was asked if he believed that the four men were guilty, even after DNA evidence proved the men were innocent, Arthur answered that his beliefs remained the same. “When Arthur looked down that long oval table at Williams, he still saw a murderer” (Armstrong, Possley). Familiarly, Danforth stuck to his gut as well even when his village was in ruins. Both men, Arthur and Danforth, feared the consequences of confessing their wrongs. Even David Walker and Mary Warren share similarities. Walker testified to overhearing a false confession by Williams and Rainge because he expected a benefit from the prosecution and no one stopped him. Walker’s confession was accepted even though it was false. Mary Warren’s accusations of witchcraft were accepted and encouraged in Salem. Warren had to save herself just as Walker tried to save himself. In both stories fear led the characters to do the wrong thing even when the right choice was in reach. Fear is still a powerful weapon that hasn’t lessened in power even from 1692 to 2014.

Works Cited

Armstrong, Ken, and Maurice Possley. "Part 4: Reversal of Fortune." Chicagotribune.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 03 Dec. 2014. <http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/watchdog/chi-020103trial4-story.html#page=3>.

"Dennis Williams." , Center on Wrongful Convictions: Bluhm Legal Clinic, Northwestern University School of Law. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 Dec. 2014. <http://www.law.northwestern.edu/legalclinic/wrongfulconvictions/exonerations/il/dennis-williams.html>.

"False Arrests and Convictions in Chicago | People's Law Office." Peoples Law Office. N.p., n.d. Web. 1 Dec. 2014. <http://peopleslawoffice.com/about-civil-rights-lawyers/history/false-arrests-and-convictions/>.

Mills, Steve. "Ford Heights 4 Exonerated but Not Free from past." Chicago Tribune. N.p., 11 Apr. 2014. Web. 03 Dec. 2014. <http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2014-04-11/news/ct-ford-heights-four-met-20140411_1_two-decades-ford-heights-four-northwest-indiana>.

"Paula Gray - National Registry of Exonerations." Paula Gray - National Registry of Exonerations. N.p., n.d. Web. 03 Dec. 2014. <http://www.law.umich.edu/special/exoneration/Pages/casedetail.aspx?caseid=3433>.

Protess, David. "Remembering a Death Row Exonoree." The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 04 Mar. 2013. Web. 05 Dec. 2014. <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/david-protess/dennis-williams-death_b_2792843.html>.