On May 3, 1986, shortly after 10:00 p.m., two white women students at the University of Chicago were walking near their dormitory when they were approached by three African American men, at least one of whom claimed to have a gun. The men shoved the victims to their knees, robbed one of them of $6.00, took them to a nearby vacant lot, and raped one of them. They attempted unsuccessfully to rape the other victim.
After the men left the crime scene, the women summoned help on a university security phone. Police took them to a hospital, where they were treated and Vitullo-evidence kits were prepared. One of the victims told police that she had dug her fingernails into one of the attackers, drawing blood. Scrapings from her fingernails were added to the kit, and small quantities of blood were later recovered at the crime scene. Both victims provided descriptions of their assailants.
Three days later, police picked up the victims, who had agreed to help prepare composite sketches of their attackers. On the way to the police station, they happened upon a detective questioning Donald Reynolds, who fit the description of one of the rapists. “That’s him,” one victim declared. “That’s the guy.”
In June of 1986, the other victim tentatively identified Billy Wardell from a photo as one of the other men involved in the attack. Before their joint jury trial in 1988, the men requested DNA testing, but Cook County Circuit Court Judge Arthur J. Cieslik denied it on the basis that he did not believe there was enough information available “to substantiate the validity of the test.”
At the trial, in addition to the victims’ identification testimony, police forensic serologist Pamela Fish testified that semen recovered from the rape victim could only have come from 38% of the black male population, including Reynolds. In fact, the semen could have come from 80% of black males. Fish did not disclose that another Chicago Police crime lab analyst, Maria Pulling, had examined hairs recovered from Reynolds and concluded that they could not have come from either victim. Reynolds and Wardell presented strong alibis, but the jury found both guilty. Following the jury’s verdict, Judge Cieslik addressed the men: “You weren’t satisfied with (robbing the victims). You were going to have some more fun with some white girls.” He sentenced them to 69 years.
On June 10, 1992, the Illinois Appellate Court affirmed the convictions, stating that Cieslik’s denial of DNA testing was within his discretion, but remanded the case for resentencing on the grounds that Cieslik’s reference to “fun with some white girls” was racist. On remand, the prison sentences were reduced to 55 years.
In 1996, four years after the convictions were affirmed on appeal, attorney Kathleen Zellner entered the case and persuaded prosecutors to agree to the DNA testing Ceislik had denied. The results established that neither Reynolds nor Wardell could have been the source of the semen in the case. The convictions were vacated, prosecutors agreed to dismiss the charges, and the men were freed on November 16, 1997. The men were each awarded $120,000 from the Court of Claims, and $45,000 from the City of Chicago in settlement of their civil suit.
— Center on Wrongful Convictions