On February 12, 2005, 21-year-old Michael Winston and his 28-year-old brother, Robert, were in a gas station convenience store at 103rd Street and Cottage Grove Avenue on Chicago’s South Side when an altercation broke out with three other men who were members of the Four Corner Hustlers street gang.
Gunshots were fired and one of the three, 21-year-old Victor Parson, was shot three times and killed in the vestibule of the store. No gun was ever recovered.
The following day, a Chicago police detective received an anonymous telephone call giving the names of Michael and Robert Winston as possible suspects in the murder. Robert Winston belonged to the rival Gangster Disciples street gang. Michael did not belong to any gang.
Police picked up one of Parson’s companions, Petre Washington, 27, and showed him a photo lineup containing the pictures of the two brothers. Washington identified Michael Winston as the man he saw in the store with a gun, but he said he ran when the shooting began and did not see the shots fired.
Washington telephoned Lamont Donegan, 21, who he said was in the store with Washington and Parson. Donegan also viewed the photo lineup and identified Michael Winston as having a gun in the store.
Shortly after the shooting, Michael Winston moved to Las Vegas to take a new job – a move that he had planned before the shooting.
The investigation of the case went no further until a year later, in February 2006, when it was assigned to a police cold case unit. Michael Winston’s name was run through a police computer and detectives learned he had been arrested in Las Vegas. An arrest warrant was obtained and Winston was returned and charged on March 2, 2006 with the murder of Parson and the attempted murder of Washington and Donegan.
On February 7, 2007, Winston went on trial in Cook County Circuit Court before Judge James Schreier who heard the evidence without a jury.
Washington testified that the day before the incident, he and Donegan went to an apartment complex to visit a relative and passed Michael in a hallway. Washington testified that he said something derogatory to Michael, who pulled out a knife and walked away.
Both Washington and Donegan testified that the following evening they were in the store when Michael Winston confronted them and words were exchanged. Washington then punched Winston in the face. Both said that Winston then pulled out a pistol and they turned and ran. Parson, they said, fell down in the vestibule of the store, where he was shot—although both Washington and Donegan said they did not see the shooting.
Michael Winston testified in his own behalf and said that the night before the shooting he saw Washington and Donegan at the apartment complex and that Donegan pulled out a gun and demanded Winston’s money. Winston testified that he pulled out a knife and managed to get away.
Winston said that he and his brother, Robert Winston, and two women friends went to the convenience store and he was approached by Washington, who punched him. Winston said he stumbled backward and at that moment Donegan and Parson entered the store. He said he began to reach for his knife, but the three men then fled, chased by Robert.
Winston testified that he saw Robert walk out and shoot toward the ground. When Winston left the store, he saw Parson on the ground holding his abdomen. At that point, Michael Winston said his brother Robert returned and shot Parson again.
As he headed home, Winston said Robert caught up to him and threatened him with harm if Winston told police that Robert was the gunman.
After he was arrested, Michael Winston said Robert told him that he believed Michael would be acquitted and again threatened Michael if he reported him to police. Winston testified that he was fearful for his life because members of the Gangster Disciples street gang, to which Robert belonged, were in the jail with him.
One of the women who was in the store with the brothers, J’Mas Hall, testified that while she was still in the store after the shooting, Robert Winston called on her cell phone and told her to keep quiet. She said she lied to police and said she did not know any of the men involved. Hall also testified that after Michael Winston was arrested, Robert Winston admitted to her and a friend that he had shot Parson.
Michael’s sister, Patricia Winston, testified that on the night of the shooting Robert admitted to her that he shot someone at the store and threatened to harm her if she implicated him. She testified that after Michael was arrested, she asked Robert to turn himself in, but he refused.
Patricia’s boyfriend, Carlos Vincent, testified that a few days after the shooting, Robert Winston admitted he was the gunman.
Raymonde Winston, the mother of Robert and Michael, testified that after Michael was arrested, Robert admitted he was the gunman.
Michael’s 12-year-old nephew, Wacochee Coleman, also testified that Robert admitted to him that he shot Parson.
Robert Winston was called to testify. He denied being at the store on the day of the shooting and denied he ever told anyone that he was the gunman.
On March 21, 2007, Michael Winston was found guilty of the murder of Parson and acquitted on the charges of attempted murder. Judge Schreier ruled that Michael had fired a gun, but had not actually fired the shots that killed Parson.
On April 27, 2007, a motion for new trial was filed that included a statement from Robert Winston in which he confessed to shooting Parson. At a hearing on the motion, Robert testified that he gave the statement a few days after Michael was convicted.
He admitted shooting Parson, but said that when he was leaving the store, Parson had a gun in his hand. Robert said he shot Parson in self-defense.
He admitted he had told his mother, sister and nephew that he was the gunman.
On August 22, 2007, Judge Schreier denied the motion. He said he did not believe that the shooting appeared to be a matter of self defense and therefore he did not find Robert to be a credible witness. Schreier sentenced Michael Winston to 40 years in prison.
On July 14, 2009, the Illinois Court of Appeals reversed the conviction, ruling that Schreier should have granted the motion for new trial. The court held that Schreier erred in refusing to consider Robert Winston’s statement a confession to the crime. That new evidence was sufficient, the court ruled, to reverse the conviction and the case was remanded for a new trial.
By that time, Northwestern University Law School’s Center on Wrongful Convictions had begun to represent Michael Winston, at the urging of another of the Center’s clients.
In June 2012, a week before Winston was set for retrial, Donegan sent a letter to Winston saying that he had falsely identified him and that he felt guilty about having done so. Lawyers for Winston interviewed Donegan by telephone in the Illinois prison where he was serving a 27-year prison term for a 2008 murder. Donegan confirmed that his identification was false and said it was coerced by police.
On June 21, 2012, Winston went on trial before Cook County Circuit Court Judge Lawrence Flood, who heard the evidence over three days without a jury.
The prosecution called Washington, who was brought in from a federal prison where he was serving a 10-year sentence for a federal gun violation. He was unwilling to testify which enabled prosecutors to introduce his testimony from at first trial.
Donegan testified that he knew that Michael Winston was not the gunman, but said police threatened to charge him with concealment of a homicide unless he testified that Michael Winston was the gunman.
On July 2, 2012, Cook County Circuit Court Judge Lawrence Flood acquitted Michael Winston, who was then released.
Robert Winston was sentenced to 11 years in prison after being convicted of an aggravated assault with a firearm in 2006. He is eligible for parole in 2015.
– Maurice Possley