Justice arrives in the nick of time

As executions are sped up, David Usborne examines the scandal of innocent men who spent 18 years facing the death penalty
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The Independent Online
This Independence Day weekend, Dennis Williams will be reflecting on America and the promises it makes its citizens a little more intensely than most. The land of the free? That is a bad joke for a man who has just spent 18 years in prison, most of it on Death Row, for a double murder he never committed.

His thoughts will not be much different from the three other men who shared his nightmare of justice gone spectacularly wrong. For certain, they are bitter; but at least now they have their liberty back, not to mention a public apology from the state of Illinois, and the promise of financial compensation - all of $35,000 each.

If this were Britain we might call them the Chicago Four: Mr Williams, Willie Rainge, Kenneth Adams and Verneal Jimerson. All black, childhood friends from one of the Windy City's poorest neighbourhoods, they were convicted in 1978 for the double murder of Lawrence Lionberg, a petrol station attendant, and his fiancee, Carol Schmal, who was also raped. Both were white.

With five bland words - "All the convictions are vacated" - an Illinois judge last week put to rest the four's torment and by Friday fresh charges had been lodged against four others for the 1978 crime. What all of America is left to ponder is how these men were allowed to rot in jail for so long - two of them on the edge of oblivion on Death Row - when they were innocent. It has been a miscarriage, moreover, that has come to light only weeks after the passage of legislation in Washington to limit the appeals process for Death Row inmates, so that executions can be carried out more quickly.

Striding from the courtroom on Tuesday, the shackles finally gone from his ankles, Mr Williams said he knew what it had been all about: racism and the political pressure that was on the police department in the wake of the crimes to find the perpetrators quickly and put them behind bars. "The police just picked up the first four young black men they could and that was it," he said. "They didn't care whether they were guilty or innocent."

Fortunately, there were people in Chicago who did care, notably a professor of journalism from Northwestern University, David Protess, and three of his students. Six months ago, after discussing the case in class, they began investigating the original convictions against the men. It did not take them long to wreck the credibility of the prosecution's case. The progress they made persuaded the state to conduct new DNA tests on swabs taken from Miss Schmal, the technology for which had not been available in 1978. They established that the four could not have committed the rape and murders.

Among the students' first breaks was the discovery of a police file that prosecutors never saw fit to enter as evidence. It revealed that detectives had interviewed a witness who said he had seen a different man, Ira Johnson, running from the scene of where the murders were committed. "I jumped out of my seat when I saw that file," Mr Protess reported. The students subsequently found Robinson, who was already in prison serving a 74-year sentence for a murder committed in 1991. Almost unbelievably, he confessed to them that he and three others had killed the young couple 18 years ago. He and two others were charged last week. The fourth, Dennis Johnson, Ira's elder brother, is dead.

The apology to Mr Williams and his friends was offered by an Illinois states' attorney, Jack O'Malley. "I cannot give these men those 18 years back," he said. "When I say, 'I'm sorry,' I know those words are inadequate." Equally inadequate, he admitted, would be the payment of $35,000 to each of the men if and when they are granted an official pardon. But Mr O'Malley still defended the criminal justice system that allowed the travesty to happen. "It is the best system ever developed in history for administering justice," he ventured. "But it is not flawless."

The "flaw" exposed here is that the exercise of capital punishment means that from time to time people are going to be executed for crimes of which they are innocent. We know, for instance, that in the 20 years since the death penalty was reintroduced, 331 inmates have been executed, while over the same period at least 60 who were sent to Death Row were subsequently found to be innocent.

There seems no inclination among America's politicians to abandon capital punishment, however - quite the reverse. The legislation recently passed by Congress, signed by President Bill Clinton and upheld two weeks ago by the Supreme Court, dictates that a convicted prisoner may in future only make a second appeal to the federal courts if approval is granted first by three judges. The idea is to make it easier for states to carry out death sentences more quickly. More quickly, for instance, than the 18 years that Mr Williams spent waiting.

If there is honour or good anywhere in this sorry story, it surely belongs with Professor Protess and his three students.