|Willie Raines is on a stepladder, installing a fluorescent light fixture
at the Belmont Nursing and Rehabilitation Center on Madison's east side.
It's past three in the afternoon and Raines, the facility's maintenance
supervisor, has been on the job since 6:30 a.m. He drills the holes, pounds
in toggle bolts, tightens the screws, then caps the live, bare wires with
his hands. I pass tools up to him, careful not to touch the metal ladder.
At one point, an elderly man in a wheelchair soundlessly signals his
desire to get by. Raines, with a smile, steps down, moves the ladder and
gently relocates the man, who nods his appreciation. The people here like
him. He's a hard worker; he gets things done.
Raines, 41, is wearing paint-speckled pants, his long, straight hair
pulled back into a ponytail and covered with a bandanna. His face is weathered,
but handsome. He has a quick and easy smile. Later, when I spend some time
with Raines in Chicago, I see that his chest and upper arms are covered
with crude blue prison tattoos, including one that actually says "Mom."
He bears the scars of a knife attack in prison, including three stab wounds
to the head.
On May 13, 1978, 20-year-old Raines-whose name at the time was Willie
Rainge (more on this later)-had just changed his young son's diaper and
was on the way to work at a car dealership in East Chicago Heights-a suburb
of the Windy City now called Ford Heights-when the cops snatched him up.
He and three friends, all African American, were charged in the brutal
murder of a newly engaged white couple.
Raines spent the next 18 years of his life in prison, as did two of
his friends; a fourth friend was convicted seven years after the fact,
and served 11 years. Two of them drew death sentences.
All were convicted due to perjured testimony, forced confessions,
suppressed evidence, inept defense lawyers, racist cops and corrupt prosecutors.
Ultimately, Raines played a key role in unearthing evidence showing that
police and prosecutors knew all along-or should have known-they had the
wrong guys. And that isn't even the extraordinary part of this tale. whets
extraordinary is that others came to believe in the innocence of these
men, and worked to unravel the case against them, even to the point of
getting the real culprits to confess.
In the summer of 1996, when the Ford Heights Four were exonerated and
freed, their story made front-page news in The New York Times and other
papers. It was covered in People and on NBC's "Dateline." It is the subject
of a new book, A Promise of Justice, by Rob Warden and David Protess, the
two men most responsible for getting the convictions overturned. Touchstone
pictures has optioned the story for a feature film.
But Willie Raines isn't interested in all that. He can't bring himself
to read the book, barely skims articles about the case, and avoids the
spotlight. Earlier this month, he stood to a round of applause as
Protess, a professor at Northwestern University, introduced him at the
first National Conference on Wrongful Convictions and the Death Penalty
in Chicago. But Raines shrugged off requests to address conference
"That's not my thing," he explained, apologetically. "I ain't
trying to impress nobody."
Yet Raines cannot help but make an impression. He is living in a nightmare
from which he can't seem to wake up. He is free, yet tormented. He has
a temper as quick as his grin. He is as cagey as he is unguarded. Every
day, he struggles with the pain that's welled up inside him.
"I try not to get angry, because I got a lot of love, and getting
angry always put me on the bottom," says Raines. "I try not to walk around
every day thinking, '18 years.' If I did that, I'm going to be angry every
day, I'm not going to be able to go to work, not going to be able to share
the love that I do have."
Although Raines doesn't crave attention, he recognizes his duty to
shed light on how the criminal justice system works-or doesn't work. That's
why he agreed to this article, and why he came to the Chicago conference.
He knows that most people assume, as he once did, that the system is fair.
"I was blind," he admits. "I thought that if people went to jail, they
went to jail for something they did. Now I know better."
So do a lot of other people. The conference drew 1,200 lawyers, journalists
and advocates, exceeding all expectations. Besides Raines and the other
members of the Ford Heights Four, guests included Randall Dale Adams, whose
wrongful conviction was the subject of the 1988 documentary, The Thin Blue
Line, and Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, the pro-boxer-turned-
murder-convict whose cause was championed by Bob Dylan. Speakers included
Bianca Jagger, Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. and the son of Dr. Sam Sheppard,
who new evidence shows was wrongfully convicted of killing his wife, 45
Mixing among the throng was Nancy Brummer, whose daughter Penny was
convicted of murder in Dane County in 1994. (Click HERE
for Signs of Innocence Chart.) Also present were Keith Findley and John
Pray, two UW-Madison Law School professors involved in an Innocence Project,
begun in September, that has taken on about a dozen cases, including Brummer's.
Pray, noting that Brummer had a competent lawyer and more or less fair
trial, says the goal is to "discover new evidence or reexamine old evidence."
(Brummer was convicted on mostly circumstantial evidence in a case some
feel was tainted by anti-gay bigotry.) He and two law students assigned
to the case hope to talk to as many witnesses as possible: "There's always
the chance someone will say, 'It's been bugging me....'"
Innocence Projects, run through law schools with help from students
and outside professionals, are springing up across the nation. Their goal
is to serve as a check on the justice system by seeking to correct its
errors. On one level, Innocence Projects are an appeal to the conscience
of legal professionals.
"The law is a machine that can cause tremendous hurt," DePaul University
Law Prof. Stephan Landsman told the conference. "We never talk about that
as lawyers and teachers. It's a dangerous machine."
How often are people convicted of crimes they didn't commit?
Protess notes that even if one accepts prosecutors' estimated error rate
of 1%, that means there are 17,000 wrongfully convicted people in U.S.
jails and prisons. He says the problem will likely get worse, as lawmakers
and courts continue to erode legal safeguards against error.
Capital cases give urgency to the cause. Since 1976, when the
U.S. Supreme Court revived the death penalty, there have been 74 known
cases of people wrongly sentenced to death. During the same time, 486 people
were executed; the ratio of erroneous convictions to actual executions
is one to seven. With more than 3,500 individuals now on death row, the
implications are sobering.
"If you told Americans that one out of every 20 sausages they eat was
infested with cockroaches, no one would eat sausages," says Lawrence Marshall,
a law professor at Northwestern who also happens to be Willie Raines' attorney.
"Why would they accept that one in seven death-penalty convictions are
A death-penalty foe, Marshall notes that no one likes the idea
of killing innocent people. He says awareness of these 74 cases is turning
the tide. "Ten years ago, the face of the death penalty was John Wayne
Gacy," he told the Chicago gathering. "Today, it is Dennis Williams and
Verneal Jimerson and...."
"HE AIN'T HURT NOBODY"
On May 12, 1978, Cook County sheriff's deputies found the bodies of
Larry Lionberg, 29, and Carol Schmal, 23, in an abandoned townhouse in
East Chicago Heights. Both were shot in the head; Schmal had been raped.
The couple was abducted from a gas station in nearby Homewood around 3
a.m. the day before. Lionberg was working as an attendant; Schmal was keeping
Charles McCraney, who lived across the street from the townhouse, reported
seeing Dennis "Buck" Williams, Willie "Tuna" Rainge and Kenny Adams there
on the night of the crime. Deputies rounded up all three, as well as Adam's
girlfriend Paula Gray and a fourth man, Verneal "Lurch" Jimerson.
At the time of his arrest, Raines had two young children and
a third on the way. He had a steady job, and had never been in trouble
with the law.
The four men denied involvement, even after being terrorized
by deputies. Dennis Williams says he was taken to the crime scene, thrown
against a wall, and threatened with a gun to his temple: "Nigger, if you
don't tell us what happened in the next three seconds, I'm going to splatter
your damn brains on the wall." But Gray, 17 years old and borderline mentally
retarded, soon "confessed" to holding a "Bic-type" lighter for a half hour
as the men took turns raping Schmal, then watching as Williams and Raines
shot the couple to death.
Years later, Gray stated that a half-dozen white male cops took
her to the crime scene, where they coached her on details of the crime,
and then to a motel, where they threatened to do "the same thing that happened
to that lady." Willie Raines, for his part, bears Gray no ill will: "Anybody
with any common sense would know they put a lot of fear in her. She did
what they told her to."
A month after her confession, Gray changed her story, saying she was
forced to implicate the four men even though they were innocent. Prosecutors
responded by charging her with murder as well as perjury. But Jimerson
was set free, since Gray's recanted testimony was the only thing tying
him to the crime.
In September 1978, Gray and the three men went on trial. Raines,
Williams and Gray were represented by the same defense lawyer, Archie Weston,
then in the throes of personal and financial problems for which he was
later disbarred. Their prosecutor was Assistant State Attorney Scott Arthur.
Besides McCraney (who, it turns out, received reward and relocation money
for his testimony), the jurors heard a jailhouse snitch who swore he overheard
Williams admit to the crime while detained in the Cook County Jail.
The snitch later admitted concocting the story with prosecutor Arthur's
assistance, in exchange for leniency. At one point in the trial, Raines's
daughter, Arealya, then 3 years old, disrupted the proceedings by running
to the defense table and shouting, "Let my daddy come home, he ain't hurt
By the time Arealya's statement was proved true, she was a grown woman
with a child of her own. When Raines went to prison, his son, Tederol,
was too young to walk; when he was released, Tederol couldn't walk again,
having been paralyzed in a shooting at age 17. "If I could've
been a father to him," Raines told Protess, "it wouldn't have happened."
Raines was sentenced to life in prison without parole and sent to Stateville,
an Illinois state
penitentiary. Adams and Gray drew terms of 75 and 50 years, respectively.
And Williams, fingered as the primary shooter, was sentenced to death.
REVERSAL OF FORTUNE
Flimsy as it was, the case against the Ford Heights Four took 18 years
to knock down. Early on, the families of Raines and Williams hired a private
investigator, Ren Brown. He located a drug dealer and thug named Dennis
Johnson, who claimed to have firsthand information on the
Johnson told Brown that he knew others were to blame but refused to
name names without a promise of immunity. One of the men, he revealed,
was nicknamed "Red," but so were a lot of black men in Ford Heights, and
Brown was never able to track him down.
But Dennis Williams did not give up. He began sending letters
from death row protesting his innocence, one of which reached the offices
of the Chicago Lawyer in September 1981. The crusading magazine's editor,
Rob Warden, thought the case was worth looking into. It didn't take him
long to figure out that the testimony on which the Ford Heights Four were
convicted didn't make sense.
For instance, witness McCraney claimed he saw the three men outside
the townhouse at around 3 a.m., after he watched a TV detective show and
played his guitar for about an hour. Warden checked the station logs and
found that the show, "Kojak," ended at 12:50 a.m. That meant the
alleged sighting happened well before 2:30 a.m., when Lionberg and Schmal
were still at the gas
station, miles away. In other words, McCraney's testimony actually
indicated that the three men he identified were not involved, a fact their
defense lawyers failed to notice. Warden also quickly established that
it is impossible to hold a "Bic-type" lighter in one's bare hand for 30
minutes, as Gray had claimed; laboratory tests later confirmed this.
Through private eye Brown, Warden and an assistant spoke again to Dennis
Johnson, who, while insisting on anonymity, all but confessed to complicity
in the crime. "We left prints all over," he said. "I never got it-why
didn't the cops find them and bust our asses?"
In July 1982, the Chicago Lawyer ran a cover story on the case.
That fall, the Illinois Supreme Court granted Williams, and eventually
Raines and Gray, new trials, on grounds that their now disbarred attorney,
Weston, failed to provide effective representation. The prosecution
appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which in 1984 let the Illinois decision
stand. Then the roof caved in.
On Dec. 11, 1985, Raines and Williams were together at the Cook
County Jail, awaiting retrial, when they read an article in that day's
Chicago Tribune informing them, for the first time, that their friend Jimerson
had been convicted of murder and sentenced to death. Paula Gray had testified
against him, as she would against Raines and Williams.
Prosecutor Arthur, who obtained the original convictions, had
made a deal with Gray to free her from prison in exchange for her (perjured)
testimony. When asked under oath if any such deal had been made, Gray denied
it, and Arthur did nothing to set the record straight. On the basis of
her testimony, Williams and Raines were reconvicted in 1987. They went
back to prison; Gray went home.
DEAD MAN TALKING
David Protess, who teaches journalism at Northwestern, sees working
to reverse wrongful convictions as an essential function of the press,
since the criminal justice system, he believes, is incapable of fixing
its own mistakes.
"Invariably," Protess told conference participants, "the justice
system is corrected in spite of itself, not because of anything it does."
Protess, whose efforts have led to several overturned convictions,
got involved in the Ford Heights Four case through a death row inmate named
Girvies Davis. Protess had come to believe in Davis' innocence and,
on the morning of his scheduled execution, appeared on a television news
program. He mentioned that jurors in the case never knew Davis was illiterate
when he signed
confessions to 11 unsolved murders, some of which he clearly had nothing
to do with. (This after cops took Davis from his cell at midnight for a
five-hour "drive-around for evidence.")
Amazingly, one of the jurors contacted Protess and wrote a statement
faxed to Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar. "I believe my verdict was wrong," the
juror stated. "I deeply regret this terrible mistake on our part...."
Protess and his students gathered to celebrate but instead got word
that Edgar refused to stay the execution. Davis called one last time from
prison that evening, and made Protess promise to keep trying to help people
on death row. Protess asked Davis if there was anyone he had in mind.
"Buck Williams," he responded instantly. "I'm certain he's innocent."
Three hours later, the state of Illinois put Davis to death.
In January 1996, Protess gave students in his investigative journalism
class a choice of four possible miscarriages of justice to work on. Four
students-Laura Sullivan, Stephanie Goldstein, Stacey Delo and Christie
Guidibaldi-picked the case of the Ford Heights Four. During the next
several months, the students tracked down a number of players in the case,
Gray, who admitted she lied in implicating her friends.
But the big break came courtesy of Willie Raines.
"THEY KNEW ALL ALONG!"
While in lockdown at Stateville, Raines received a call from an investigator
affiliated with one
of Williams' defense attorneys. The investigator had come across a
police report he thought might be useful, and read it to Raines over the
Protess, who learned about the report from Raines, sent Sullivan
and Guidibaldi to dig through tens of thousands of pages of documents in
the case. "They found it in a sealed envelope at the bottom of the eighth
box," recalls Protess, who, on seeing the document, exclaimed, "Holy shit!"
There, in three handwritten pages, was a report of an interview
that took place at a Chicago hospital on May 17, 1978, five days after
Lionberg and Schmal were found dead-and four days after Raines and his
friends were arrested. A man named Marvin Simpson, injured in a car accident,
had told sheriff's deputies, including the same ones who had busted the
Ford Heights Four, of four other individuals he suspected of involvement
in the crime. They included Dennis Johnson, his brother Ira, and
Arthur Robinson, a.k.a. "Red."
Of course, Dennis Johnson's name and that of "Red" clicked for
Protess. "I was blown away," he recalls. "How could this be? The cops knew
all along, and they buried the evidence."
Raines is equally indignant. "They knew they were arresting the
wrong people," he fumes. "They chose to go on with what they were doing.
They chose to go on destroying our lives, the four of us."
Unlike law enforcement officers, Protess and his students followed
up on Simpson's tip. Dennis Johnson had died a drug-related death a few
years before. Ira Johnson was in prison for killing a woman in 1991-a crime,
Protess notes, that "would never have happened if the authorities had done
their job in 1978."
In a series of letters and contacts, Sullivan and Delo ultimately got
Ira Johnson to confess to the crime. This convicted killer, unlike
police and prosecutors, was troubled that innocent men were facing execution
and/or life in prison for crimes they didn't commit. Later, "Red" Robinson
also confessed to Sullivan and Goldstein. On the basis of these disclosures,
Protess was able
to organize enough media coverage to force the state attorney's office
to end its opposition to DNA testing of semen evidence from the crime.
The tests positively excluded all four convicted men. On July 2, 1996,
the convictions of the Ford Heights Four were vacated.
Charges were brought against Johnson and two others implicated in the
crime. State's Attorney Jack O'Malley publicly apologized to the
Ford Heights Four, calling their case "a glaring
example" of the system's fallibility. Prosecutor Arthur, asked on "Dateline"
whether he would ever apologize, replied, "No-because I acted in good faith
on everything that was brought to me."
For Raines, even O'Malley's words ring hollow: "He didn't apologize
to me. He did it on TV. Everything was political, same thing as when they
locked us up."
Like the other members of the Ford Heights Four, Willie Rainge, as
he had always called himself, received a $8,000 check for the movie rights
to his story. But to cash the check, he had to prove who he was, and to
this end sent away for a copy of his birth certificate from Sunflower County,
Miss. The document that arrived spelled his name Raines. He was told he
could have it corrected
for $15, but decided instead to adopt the new name, proclaiming, "I've
At first, Raines stayed with his wheelchair-bound son, Tederol,
in a Chicago public housing project. Eager to leave Chicago behind, Raines
in November 1996 took a job at the Belmont Center in Madison. The following
summer, he met a woman named Shante at a bar in Illinois; the two were
married in September 1997; she lived with him until this February, when
she returned to Chicago
with her two daughters.
Raines blames himself: "My anger caused me to lose my wife." He's
getting professional help, and vows to do everything he can to repair his
marriage. But it's not easy to live an ordinary life after being deprived
of ordinary experiences for half a lifetime.
After the first day of the conference, Raines and I drive to his wife's
apartment on Chicago's South Side. Entering the dwelling, he bends to greet
her 2-year-old daughter with a kiss to the forehead. There is tension between
Willie and Shante, but he patiently takes care of getting her kids fed
and off to their grandmother's, a few blocks away.
We go to a Red Lobster for dinner. Willie, wearing a tailored
suit and red hat, begins holding court, grating on Shante's nerves. He
gets up from dinner without finishing his steak and heads to the bar. When
we join him, he has three drinks and two lit cigarettes at one time. He
points to the largest glass in the bar, and orders a drink in it. He barely
touches it before it's
time to go.
Later in the evening, at a bar in South Chicago called the Sexty
Sex, where Shante works, I ask Raines if he's religious. "I believe in
God," he says, explaining that his beliefs are different from those of
his family. A minute later, he demands, "Why did you ask me that
"I wondered what it is you hold on to," I tell him. He points
to Shante, in a way she can't see. He wants to be a husband, a family man.
He wants to have an ordinary life. But maybe the way his life has gone
so far makes that impossible.
"What do we owe people like Willie Rainge and the other members of
the Ford Heights Four whom we wrongly convict?" asks Prof. Marshall, Raines'
attorney, in a published essay. "How can we begin to redress the grievous
wrongs that have been done to these individuals, whose lives have been
ravaged by the fallibilities of our criminal justice system?"
In 1997, lawyers including Marshall filed civil suits on behalf
of the Ford Heights Four against the Cook County Sheriffs Department for
"intentionally manufacturing false evidence." The case is slated for trial
next March. The prosecutors, in this and other cases, enjoy sovereign immunity,
and cannot be sued.