In the early morning of May 11, 1978, Lawrence Lionberg and Carol Schmal were abducted from a Clark filling station where Lionberg worked in the mostly white Chicago suburb of Homewood, Illinois. The bodies of the recently engaged white couple were found the next day in an abandoned townhouse in mostly black East Chicago Heights (now Ford Heights). Both victims had been shot, and Schmal had been gang-raped. A false tip from a man named Charles McCraney, who lived near the murder scene, led to the arrest of four African Americans — Verneal Jimerson
, Dennis Williams, Kenneth Adams
, Willie Rainge
. In addition, Paula Gray
— a mildly intellectually disabled 17-year-old — was brought in for questioning.
On May 16, after being held without legal counsel for two days by Cook County Sheriff’s officers and prosecutors, Gray confessed to the grand jury that she held a disposable cigarette lighter burning while Adams, Rainge, Jimerson, and Williams raped Schmal seven times. She also stated that she saw Williams shoot both victims with a .38-caliber pistol.
A month later, on June 19, Gray recanted her story at a preliminary hearing, claiming that she had been drugged and that the police walked her around the crime scene and told her what to say. Since Jimerson was only implicated by Gray’s recanted testimony, the charges against him were dismissed. However, Gray herself was charged with murder and perjury and brought to trial jointly with the three remaining male defendants — Adams, Rainge, and Williams.
The trial was conducted before two juries — one for the men, the other for Gray. All four were convicted. The convictions of the remaining defendants rested primarily on McCraney's testimony and the testimony of an informant, David Jackson, who falsely claimed to have heard Williams and Rainge talking in jail about how they committed the crime.
Williams was sentenced to death, Rainge to life, Adams to 75 years and Gray to 50 years. The convictions initially were affirmed on appeal, but Williams and Rainge won new trials in 1982 because the lawyer who represented them at trial also represented Gray.
Prosecutors then made a deal with Gray under which she would be released in exchange for testifying against Williams and Rainge at their retrial. As part of the deal, Gray also agreed to testify against Jimerson, who was then charged, convicted, and sentenced to death in 1985. Two years later, Williams and Rainge were convicted a second time. Williams again was sentenced to death, and Rainge to life.
In 1994, the David Jackson, the jailhouse informant who had testified against the defendants in their first trial, recanted his testimony in an affidavit prepared by defense investigators. He said he had lied because prosecutors gave him a deal on charges he was facing at the time.
In 1995, the Illinois Supreme Court unanimously reversed Jimerson’s conviction and ordered a new trial due to witness perjury - prosecutors had allowed Gray to lie on the stand and say that she had not received any benefit for her testimony.
Now lacking credible evidence against Jimerson, the Cook County State's Attorney's Office agreed to DNA testing. Meanwhile, Northwestern University journalism students working under Professor David Protess found a police file showing that, within a week of the crime, a witness had told the Sheriff's Police they had arrested the wrong men. The witness said he knew who committed the crime because he heard shots, saw four men run away from the scene, and the next day saw them selling items taken from the robbery of the victims. This report had never been turned over to the defense. One of the men identified by the witness was by then dead, but the other three ultimately confessed.
In 1996, the results of the DNA testing conclusively established the innocence of the Ford Heights Four and corroborated the confessions, and Paula Gray again recanted her testimony against the defendants.
In 1999, Cook County settled lawsuits filed by the innocent men — known as the “Ford Heights Four” — for $36 million, at the time the largest civil rights payment in U.S. history. Williams’s share of the settlement was $12.8 million. In 2008, Gray’s suit against Cook County also settled for an additional $4 million.
— Center on Wrongful Convictions