REVERSAL OF FORTUNE

By Ken Armstrong and Maurice Possley
Tribune Staff Writers
January 13, 1999 

On a weekday afternoon one year ago, in a conference room 39 floors above LaSalle Street, two men sat at opposite ends of a long oval table ringed by a dozen lawyers and a court reporter.

 At one end was Dennis Williams, a man who had spent much of his life in prison, awaiting execution. At the other was Scott Arthur, the prosecutor who put him there.



Dennis Williams
It was a moment 20 years in the making. Williams, now exonerated, was seeking financial retribution for a life lost to Death Row. And Arthur, now in private practice, was under oath, forced to answer the sort of hardball questions he usually relished firing at others. Do you have a criminal record? Were you ever suspended? Did you cut secret deals with witnesses?

The confrontation arose from a lawsuit filed by Williams and three other men--now known as the Ford Heights 4--alleging that sheriff's deputies framed them for a gang rape and double murder in 1978. Although he is not a defendant--prosecutors are immune from such lawsuits--Arthur had been the one constant at the prosecution table in three trials over nine years. In many ways, he personified the miscarriage of justice that imprisoned the Ford Heights 4.
But on this afternoon, questioned as a witness in the still-pending lawsuit, Arthur offered no apologies, second thoughts or self-doubts about the prosecution he helped lead.

"Sitting here today, Mr. Arthur, do you believe that any of the Ford Heights 4--Willie Rainge, Kenny Adams, Verneal Jimerson and Dennis Williams--had any involvement in the murders of Larry Lionberg and Carol Schmal?" asked one of Jimerson's attorneys.

 "Yes," Arthur said. "I think they did."

 Arthur clings to his belief even though other men have confessed; even though DNA tests implicated one of those who confessed and eliminated Williams and his friends as suspects; even though prosecution witnesses have either recanted or been discredited, and the scientific evidence at the trial exposed as bunk; even though Williams and his friends have received pardons from the governor and apologies from the state's attorney's office.

 When Arthur looked down that long oval table at Williams, he still saw a murderer.

 When Williams stared back, he saw the man who wanted him executed for a crime he did not commit.

 Since 1963, at least 381 people in the United States have had a homicide conviction reversed because prosecutors engaged in the worst kinds of deception-- withholding evidence favorable to a defendant or allowing witnesses to lie. Jimerson is one of those defendants. His conviction was reversed because Scott Arthur allowed his star witness to lie, according to an Illinois Supreme Court ruling.

 The story of Scott Arthur reflects, in many respects, a troubling side of the Cook County state's attorney's office. Winning is rewarded. Cheating goes unpunished.

 A courtroom imposes rules of engagement. Arthur broke those rules, but he continued to move up the office's ranks. That's hardly uncommon, according to a Tribune investigation. In the past two decades, appeals courts have hammered one Cook County prosecutor after another only to see that attorney promoted rather than reprimanded.

 And although it's been more than a decade since Arthur left the state's attorney's office, the fallout from his career is still being sorted out--in the Ford Heights 4 lawsuit and in appeals of other cases still wending their way through the courts.

 Until 1988, when he resigned to go into private practice, Arthur seemed to have stepped out of a 1940s film noir and into Cook County's court system.

 Smart, blunt and frequently profane, Arthur intimidated defense lawyers, steamrolled judges and won over juries.

 As a trial prosecutor and supervisor, he influenced hundreds of careers in the Cook County state's attorney's office, eventually rising to the prestigious position of chief of the criminal division. Fellow prosecutors crammed courtrooms to watch him batter defense lawyers and witnesses. Law students packed classrooms to hear his advice on trying a case.

 There was no questioning his ability as a trial lawyer: Arthur won the big cases--cop killers, a man who raped and murdered two elderly sisters, a man who strangled two little boys and stabbed their pregnant mother.

 As a prosecutor--the lawyer for the people--Arthur was, in many ways, a lawyer the people could be proud of. A powerful work ethic drove him to put in 60, sometimes 80, hours a week. He would rather shoulder the work and take a case to trial than cut a quick plea bargain.

 Many of the defendants Arthur put away were monstrous criminals who generated little sympathy and whose guilt few doubted. In 1982, Arthur prosecuted Edgar Hope Jr. on a charge of murdering a police officer. After winning a conviction, Arthur asked jurors to sentence Hope to death. Pacing around the courtroom, Arthur pointed to all the Chicago police officers packed into the gallery, then grabbed the murder weapon and waved it at the jurors.

 "This gun is talking to you. What it says is worth more than 10,000 words. It killed a man who wears this badge," Arthur said, picking up the victim's police star.

 The jury returned a sentence of death, and the courtroom erupted in cheers and shouts of congratulation.

 But 10 years later, that moment lost its luster. The Illinois Supreme Court granted Hope a new trial, ruling that Arthur and his trial partner had improperly excluded African-Americans from the jury. Hope had to be retried, reopening emotional wounds and taxing public resources. Hope was convicted and sentenced to death again, but three months ago, the Illinois Supreme Court vacated the death sentence because of an error by the trial judge.

 Other courtroom victories of Arthur's also evaporated on appeal because he and his trial partners broke the rules of a fair trial-- allowing a key witness to lie, making improper arguments, or engaging in abusive behavior toward defense attorneys and witnesses. In one case alone, Arthur misled jurors, brushed aside the judge, impugned the defense attorney and smeared the defendant with innuendo that was unsupported by the facts, the Illinois Appellate Court ruled.

<> Indeed, Arthur's conduct in the latter case was so egregious that it became a touchstone used by appellate courts in evaluating other prosecutors' behavior. The case has been cited more than 100 times in published appellate rulings, though they do not name Arthur. In the protective atmosphere of the legal world, lawyers who behave badly usually remain anonymous.
  
Welcome to Markham

 John Scott Arthur grew up in Hammond, across the Indiana state line, but spent much of his time in Illinois. He began working at age 6, emptying ashtrays and picking up empty glasses in the bowling alley and skating rink his family owned in south suburban Harvey, Arthur said in an interview describing his personal history.

 In high school, he played fullback and linebacker before blowing out his knees. He aspired to be a fighter pilot, but was rejected by the Air Force Academy.

 He studied political science at Indiana University and protested the Vietnam War. Then it was off to law school at Northwestern University.

 His politics careened back to the right when he became a research assistant for professor Fred "The Cop" Inbau, a legend in law enforcement circles and a mentor to many prosecutors. An advocate of the police use of trickery and lies to extract a confession, Inbau railed against the U.S. Supreme Court's 1966 Miranda decision requiring police to notify suspects of their rights before questioning them.

 Arthur graduated in 1975 and accepted a job at the Cook County state's attorney's office, where he had clerked during law school. Asked where he would like to be assigned, he picked the south suburbs because that's where the action was.

 At that time, the south suburban office was a stepping-stone sought by ambitious young prosecutors. While other prosecutors were still trying traffic cases and misdemeanors, Arthur and fellow lawyers were handling rapes, armed robberies and murders.

 Their youth and success produced a certain swagger--something that defense attorneys more accustomed to working at the Criminal Courts Building at 26th Street and California Avenue soon learned.

 "We'd get a lot of lawyers coming in saying, `Hey, at 26th Street this would be thrown out. At 26th Street this would be reduced to this or that,' " Arthur recalls. "And we'd say, `Well, you're not at 26th Street, OK?' "

 Defense attorneys saw Markham, where the south suburban courts are located, as a place where prosecutors were tight with the judges, tight with the media and playground bullies with defense attorneys.

 "They had to demean the defense attorney and any and all witnesses he might put on," said Bob Lee, now a high-ranking supervisor in the public defender's office. "It wasn't enough to convict the defendant."

 The south suburbs were diverse, with pockets of rich and poor, black and white. But inside the courthouse, most of the defendants were African-American. Some prosecutors at the Criminal Courts Building referred to Markham as "Darkham."

 "Markham was like South Africa. You had to have ID to be out there," says Kendall Hill, an assistant public defender and an African-American. "It was all white. And the defendants were basically all black."

 Markham also developed a reputation for the amount of beer consumed within the courthouse walls. Some judges occasionally stopped by and tossed back cans of Old Style with the prosecutors, according to Arthur and other former prosecutors who worked in Markham. It made for a chummy, though at times unpredictable, atmosphere.

 On a September afternoon in 1983, Judge Frank Butler was drinking beer in the prosecutors' office when a teenage girl and her parents came in to file a complaint against the girl's ex-boyfriend. The family later told the Illinois Courts Commission that Butler--tie askew, glasses hanging from the end of his nose-- appeared to be drunk. Butler, who lectured and asked bizarre questions that reduced the girl to tears, wound up getting suspended for a month over the incident, commission records show.

 But more than anything, Markham came to be defined by Arthur and a fellow prosecutor named Ray Garza.

 Both joined the office in the mid-70s, and in the early '80s they were in charge of Markham, overseeing about 40 prosecutors handling cases in the south suburbs and Chicago's South Side. They also tried several high-profile cases together, and their names always seem to be linked.

 The people who worked for Arthur and Garza revered them. Steven Puiszis, now in private practice, says of Arthur, "He was tenacious, he was smart, he was prepared, he knew the law backwards and forwards."

 But at least five men who were convicted--four for murder, one for attempted murder--later won new trials or sentencing hearings because Arthur and his trial partners shunned the rules, according to court records and published appellate rulings. Garza was Arthur's partner in the trials of three of those men.

 Appeals courts cuffed Arthur and Garza for dirtying up defendants with insinuations instead of admissible evidence. They also cast defense attorneys as villains--not an uncommon practice among prosecutors. Garza referred to them as "frauds" and "hired guns."

 One lawyer in the State Appellate Defender's Office said Arthur and Garza became so well known for crossing the line that lawyers in the office passed around photocopied sections of briefs dealing with their conduct.

 In 1982, Arthur and Garza prosecuted Enice Lyles Jr., who was sentenced to death for murdering two children and their pregnant mother.

 Three years later, the Illinois Supreme Court ordered a new sentencing hearing, ruling that Garza and Arthur "destroyed the aura of dignity" in the courtroom with their personal attacks on the defense attorney, judge and a defense witness. In the judge's chambers, Garza cursed Lyles' lawyer while Arthur became so threatening the lawyer fled for fear Arthur would punch him, according to an affidavit the lawyer filed.

 Garza's courtroom behavior was so egregious that the Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission later censured him, making him the only prosecutor publicly sanctioned for trial misconduct in the agency's 26-year history. The commission investigated Arthur as well, but didn't discipline him.

 Presiding at the Lyles trial was Richard Samuels--an occasional visitor at the prosecutors' beer parties, according to prosecutors who worked there. Samuels exemplified one reason why Arthur and Garza could do what they did: Certain judges let them.

 In its order censuring Garza, the lawyer disciplinary commission sharply criticized Samuels as well, saying the trial "took place in an atmosphere of near anarchy." The commission referred the case to the state agency that oversees judges, but Samuels was not disciplined.

 Samuels, who declined comment for this article, was also chastised by the Illinois Appellate Court in an earlier case for not keeping Arthur in check.

Ford Heights 4 case

 A case that continues to haunt the Cook County state's attorney's office is the prosecution of the Ford Heights 4, in which four innocent men were convicted and two of them were condemned to die.

 In February 1979, on the day he was sentenced to death, Dennis Williams was asked if he had anything to say. With 24 sheriff's deputies ringing the courtroom, Williams lit into the two men standing at the prosecution table--Arthur and his supervisor, Clifford Johnson.

 "I would like to say it's a fabricated lie," Williams said. "That's all I can say about it. A lie that Mr. Clifford Johnson and Scott Arthur created to win the case."

 From the initial gathering of evidence to the final verdict of guilty, the case against Williams and three of his friends was always shaky. In the lawsuits they filed after being exonerated, they allege that the sheriff's police were racists who made hasty arrests, then cooked up incriminating evidence.

 Williams, Rainge and Adams were convicted in 1978. Jimerson, initially freed for lack of evidence, was tried in 1985--and, like Williams, received the death penalty. Williams and Rainge were convicted again in 1987 in new trials that were granted because of doubts about their first attorney's effectiveness.

 A Tribune review of court records shows that prosecutors played fast and loose with the evidence and used long-condemned courtroom tactics to sell juries on a case that was more illusion than truth.

 It began on May 12, 1978, when the bodies of a white couple, Larry Lionberg and Carol Schmal, were found in East Chicago Heights, an infamously poor and predominantly African-American suburb now known as Ford Heights. The couple had been abducted from a Homewood gas station where Lionberg was working the overnight shift. Both were shot in the back of the head and Schmal was raped. Her body was found in an abandonded townhouse and Lionberg's in a nearby field.

 Within days, Williams and three friends were arrested. Four months later, the first trial began.

 Johnson, then the supervisor of prosecutors in the south suburbs, tapped Arthur to try the case with him. Arthur was only three years out of law school, but Johnson liked his "tenacity for detail" and his firm belief in what he was doing, Johnson said in an interview.

<> While Arthur and his co-prosecutors have not been accused of intentionally prosecuting innocent men, a review of the case shows how they attempted to control the trials in ways frowned upon by the courts.   

Loading the jury

 When Leroy Posey's name was called, seven people sat on the jury.

 Posey knew he would not be number eight.

 It was Sept. 15, 1978, and the jury for Williams, Rainge and Adams was being selected. Posey, a pump house operator from the South Side, was the 17th person summoned from the pool of potential jurors. If a person was obviously unfit for jury duty, the judge would bounce him. Otherwise, the lawyers on each side used what are called peremptory strikes to pick the panel through a process of elimination.

 By the time Posey's name was called, only nine potential jurors had been excused, four by the prosecutors' peremptory strikes. But Posey already saw the pattern. After answering the normal questions--he was married, his wife was an accountant, his son went to college in Indiana--Posey asked the judge if he could speak.

 "It's obvious the state's attorneys want an all-white jury," Posey said. "They don't want me here."

 The courtroom broke out in applause.

 The judge admonished the spectators and excused Posey. When the questioning of potential jurors resumed, five more people said they shared Posey's feelings. All were removed by the judge or prosecutors. The jury ultimately consisted of 11 whites and one black woman. Later, when a new jury was selected to decide if Williams and Rainge should get the death penalty, it was all white.

 Arthur repeatedly was accused of discriminating against African-Americans in other trials as well. But he was hardly alone in that respect. In years past, before the courts began cracking down on the practice, defense attorneys regularly complained that Cook County prosecutors tried to minimize the number of blacks on juries.

 That claim was made in all three Ford Heights 4 trials. And in the 1985 trial, which had only one African-American on the jury, Jimerson's attorneys noted this remarkable peculiarity:

 On two separate days of jury selection, the jury pool started with nearly three dozen people, 13 of them African-American. At the end of each day, eight people had not been called up for possible duty. Each day, all eight were black. The court clerk said she shuffled the juror cards, and that was just the way it turned out.

 The odds of that happening are approximately 1 in 250 million, according to a mathematics professor asked to calculate the odds by the Tribune. The likelihood of winning the Power Ball Lottery is three times greater.

 Arthur says he never used peremptory strikes against African-Americans exclusively because of race.

 "I wouldn't say it was a totally irrelevant factor--but it certainly wasn't a determining factor," he said. "Any prosecutor, any defense lawyer, that tells you otherwise is full of ----."

Scant evidence

 Once the evidence began to come in at the three trials, bad science, concealment of evidence and misleading rhetoric transformed three hairs and three dubious witnesses into powerhouse evidence of guilt, according to court records, affidavits and a Tribune analysis of the scientific evidence used in the case.

 The prosecutors capitalized on a weak front posted by defense attorneys who were often ill-prepared or incompetent, according to court rulings, trial transcripts and an affidavit filed by one of the defense lawyers. In all, three attorneys who represented members of the Ford Heights 4 have had their law licenses revoked or suspended for other matters, according to state records.

 In the first Ford Heights 4 trial, the defense attorneys didn't object when Johnson and Arthur distorted the value of hair evidence--a notoriously unreliable type of forensic science.

 As a result, the defendants couldn't raise that issue on appeal even though exaggerating hair evidence has caused convictions to be reversed in other criminal cases, according to appeals court rulings.

 Unlike fingerprints, a person's hair is not unique. When a scientist compares two hairs under a microscope, the most he can say is that they look alike and "could" have come from the same person.

 In the 1978 trial, Michael Podlecki, a forensic scientist with the Illinois State Police, said he examined three hairs that had been found in Williams' car. Podlecki said he determined that two of the hairs were "similar" to victim Carol Schmal's, and that the third was "similar" to victim Larry Lionberg's.

 But Johnson and Arthur stretched Podlecki's findings by substituting the word "matched" for "similar" in their questions and arguments. Johnson went even further, saying flat-out that the hairs came from the victims.

 And Johnson's questions prompted Podlecki to cite a Canadian study that said the odds of scalp hairs from different people being considered "similar" after miscroscopic examination are 1 in 4,500. Arthur used those odds while arguing the defendants' guilt.

 But unbeknownst to the jury, those odds applied only if a hair examiner compared 23 different hair characteristics and found the hairs indistinguishable in every respect--an exhaustive comparison that Podlecki had not performed.

 Eight years later, a different examiner for the police studied the three hairs and reached a dramatically different conclusion from Podlecki. He not only disagreed that the hairs were "similar" to samples from the victims' scalps, but he concluded that one of hairs didn't even come from a person's head. It was "a body hair of some sort," the examiner wrote in his report.

 Beyond the hair evidence, a significant portion of the state's case came from three witnesses--a jailhouse informant, a neighbor and a co-defendant who turned state's witness.

 The informant, David Jackson, testified that shortly after Williams and Rainge were arrested, he overheard them talking in the Cook County Jail about how they had killed a man and "taken" sex from a woman.

 The neighbor, Charles McCraney, testified that sometime after 3 a.m. on the morning the couple disappeared, he saw six to eight people--including Williams, Rainge and Adams--scramble into the abandoned building where Carol Schmal would later be found dead. Between 4 and 4:30 a.m., he heard a gunshot.

 The co-defendant, Paula Gray, said she was present when the murders occurred. She said Williams, Rainge, Adams and Jimerson each raped Schmal and then Williams shot her. Williams and Rainge walked Lionberg to a nearby field and shot him, she said.

 Jackson testified in 1978, Gray in 1985 and 1987, and McCraney at all three trials. Jurors accepted their accounts each time.

 But court rulings, sworn affidavits and interviews with key participants indicate that prosecutors concealed that witnesses had received a host of undisclosed benefits for testifying. They ranged from get-out-of-jail-free cards for Jackson and Gray to a new job for McCraney.

 Prosecutors helped him land work as a security guard, Johnson said last year in a deposition and in an interview with the Tribune.

 Jackson and Gray have since admitted lying. In recent years, police interviewed McCraney again and deemed his account not believable. He could not be reached by the Tribune.

 In an affidavit, Jackson said that in exchange for his testimony a burglary charge against him was dropped. But when Arthur and Johnson put him on the witness stand, he said he'd been promised nothing.

<> Jackson has since died, and Arthur said recently that he doesn't recall making a deal with Jackson.   

Star witness

 Paula Gray was the prosecution's star witness, and in her case, the state's highest court determined that Arthur subverted justice by not disclosing benefits she received for testifying.

 Just 17 years old when the crime occurred, Gray could not read or write and had scored between 57 and 71 on IQ tests, indicating mild mental retardation.

 Shortly after the killings, police questioned Gray, who lived nearby. Within days, she told a grand jury that she witnessed the crime. Then she retracted the story, saying that police had walked her around the crime scene and told her what to say.

 After Gray refused to testify against the others, Johnson and Arthur filed murder charges against her for participating in the crime and perjury charges for denying it. But Gray still refused to testify, and she was convicted of those charges.

 Years later, after Gray, Williams and Rainge had won new trials, Gray changed her mind again and became a prosecution witness. At Jimerson's trial in 1985, she said Arthur had not promised her anything for testifying. Arthur said nothing--a silence that spoke volumes to the Illinois Supreme Court.

 Saying they "are not required to suspend common sense," the high court justices threw out Jimerson's conviction, ruling that Arthur allowed Gray to lie. The court noted that Arthur had signed a document saying if Gray "testifies honestly, the State will drop (the) murder charge." And after Gray finished testifying against Williams and Rainge in 1987, the murder charges were indeed dropped. She pleaded guilty to perjury and received two years' probation.

 For the second time, the Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission opened an investigation of Arthur based upon a Supreme Court opinion, and for the second time, he was not disciplined. Arthur insisted that no deal was ever consummated, and Gray's attorneys filed affidavits agreeing with him.

The man in charge

 Arthur prospered under the watch of then-State's Atty. Richard M. Daley even as appeals courts took note of his disregard for a defendant's right to a fair trial.

 In 1981, Daley named Arthur supervisor of the Markham office. And in 1985, six months after the Illinois Supreme Court castigated Arthur and Garza in the Lyles case, Daley named Arthur head of the felony trial division.

 At about the same time, Daley became concerned at the increasing number of cases that were being reversed because of prosecutors' misconduct and instituted a series of training sessions as well as more vigilant supervision, according to records and interviews.

 But the people Daley tapped to put a stop to the unfair trial practices included some of the very folks who had resorted to such tactics themselves. One was Arthur. Among the most reversed prosecutors in the office, Arthur was now in charge of monitoring misconduct findings and discussing reversals with the trial prosecutors.

 In 1987, Daley promoted Arthur to chief of the criminal prosecutions division, the mammoth office's fourth-highest position. And the next year, Arthur was among the finalists for first assistant, the office's top position under Daley.

 He didn't get the job and, in short order, his career as a criminal prosecutor was over.

 At about the same time, a sordid sex scandal that occurred during Arthur's tenure as the Markham supervisor resurfaced.

 A reputed mobster, Vito Caliendo, was convicted in federal court of operating a prostitution ring, and in 1988 he turned over to federal authorities a copy of an ominous letter that had been sent to Arthur in 1983.

 The letter demanded $830 in payment for services provided to a "party of five"--including two of Arthur's prosecutors--during a Dec. 3, 1982, visit to Plato's Castle South, a Caliendo-run house of prostitution in Chicago Heights.

 Arthur was not among the brothel's visitors. He said the first he learned of the party was when he received the letter in 1983. He saw the bill as a threat to embarrass the office if it didn't back off on charges that were being pursued against Caliendo's employees.

 After receiving the letter, Arthur said, he verbally reprimanded the two prosecutors and notified his bosses.

 Upon receipt of the letter in 1988, federal authorities considered it an attempt to extort the state's attorney's office, and promptly notified Daley. Soon afterward, Arthur was passed over for the first assistant position and resigned to go into private practice.

 Asked if the episode cost him the promotion, Arthur said: "I don't know. " Asked why he left the office, Arthur said, "It was time."

`The best clients I've had'

 Since going into private practice, Arthur's life has taken some radical turns paved with irony.

 In 1992, a Palos Park police officer who, according to court records, had a lengthy record of suspensions and reprimands, arrested Arthur on a drunken-driving charge and hauled him away in handcuffs.

 But a breathalyzer test confirmed Arthur's contention that he hadn't had a drop of alcohol. Arthur angrily told police that Palos Park would be renamed "Arthur Park" before he was done.

 Like the Ford Heights 4 would do a few years later, Arthur sued for wrongful arrest. The lawsuit was settled in 1997 for an undisclosed amount.

 Arthur also has accused prosecutors of playing dirty. In one case, he said, prosecutors blindsided him by concealing, until the eve of trial, information that an eyewitness had changed her mind to claim she could identify the killer.

 His clients have included members of the Gangster Disciples, one of the nation's most violent street gangs.

 "As it turned out, they're some of the best clients I've had," Arthur says. "They're honest with me."

 Arthur says his work these days isn't much fun, but it pays the bills. He has offices in Orland Park and Olympia Fields and still tries cases with Garza, who left the state's attorney's office in 1985 and shares office space with Arthur.

 And he has a part-time job, prosecuting traffic cases for south suburban Hazel Crest.

 The prosecution of the Ford Heights 4 ended with another tragic postscript. Four other men were identified as the real killers of Schmal and Lionberg. One died of a drug overdose, but the other three were convicted in 1997 and sentenced to life.

 One of them, Ira Johnson, was already in prison for another crime. In 1991, while the Ford Heights 4 were serving time, he suffocated a woman named Cherry Wilder.

 That murder took place in a vacant apartment in Chicago Heights, not far from where Lionberg and Schmal were killed.

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