On the evening of June 30, 1985, Virdeen Willis, Jr., an assistant warden at the Pontiac Correctional Center, and two others went to the Shamrock Lounge on the South Side of Chicago. When they emerged later that night, a man stepped forward and fatally shot Virdeen in a vacant lot next to the lounge where he had parked his car.
Four days later, on July 4, 1985, police arrested 37-year-old Steven Smith and charged him with the murder.
Smith had previously been convicted of two other murders, one when he was 16, and had served his sentence for the second murder at the same prison where Willis was assistant warden.
Police said that Debrah Caraway had identified Smith as the gunman. She said she saw him while standing across the street from the lounge at the time the shot was fired.
Authorities said that Smith was a member of the King Cobras street gang and shot Willis in retaliation for Willis’s harsh stance toward street gang members at Pontiac prison.
Smith went on trial before a jury in Cook County Circuit Court in April 1986. Caraway’s sister, Rhonda, testified that she was outside the lounge when Treadis Murray, a leader in the King Cobra Street gang came up to her and asked her to go into the lounge and summon an associate of his.
She said she did so and then went upstairs to her apartment. When she looked down at the lounge, Murray and his associate were gone.
A bartender in the lounge testified that he saw Rhonda Caraway come into the bar and summon a man, who accompanied her outside. He said the man later returned with Smith. They later left the bar and sometime afterward, Willis and his two companions left the bar as well.
Neither of Willis’s companions could identify the gunman, although they were within several feet of the gunman when the murder occurred.
Debrah Caraway testified that before the shooting, she and Pervis Bell drove up across the street from the bar and Bell went inside. Not long after, she said Willis and his companions emerged and the shooting occurred.
Debrah Caraway did not report her identification of Smith immediately, but three days later, she went to police and told them what she saw.
The defense presented no evidence and Smith was convicted on August 12, 1986. Judge Francis J. Mahon sentenced him to death.
On November 21, 1990, the Illinois Supreme Court reversed the conviction and sent the case back for a new trial. The Court ruled that the prosecutors argued that the state’s witnesses had been forced to move out of Chicago because they testified against Smith—an implication that they had been threatened by the King Cobras. The court ruled there was no evidence of witness intimidation.
Smith went to trial again in 1996.
Debrah Caraway again identified Smith as the gunman.
During cross-examination, she was confronted with a statement she had given to a defense investigator, Mary Waller, a few months prior to the second trial.
Debrah had testified for the prosecution that she was not taking drugs at the time of the shooting, but in the statement, she said she smoked cocaine on the day of the crime and smoked cocaine almost every day before and after the crime.
She also admitted in the statement that after the shooting, she did not notify police, but instead went looking for her sister because she wanted to go out and get more drugs. She went home after not being able to find her.
A day or so after the murder, Debrah learned that her sister was being questioned by police. She found her sister at a police station, where Rhonda was being questioned about the murder. Rhonda told her police were accusing her of supplying the gun used to kill Willis and that Rhonda’s boyfriend was suspected of the murder.
Also being questioned was Pervis Bell. Debrah admitted in her statement that Bell was bleeding from the mouth, one of his eyes was swollen and he was handcuffed.
The jury convicted Smith on April 24, 1996 and he was again sentenced to death.
On February 19, 1999, the Illinois Supreme Court again reversed Smith’s conviction and ordered the case dismissed for insufficient evidence of guilt. Smith was released the same day.
“We also find that Debrah’s credibility was repeatedly impeached with her signed statement given to defense investigator Waller five months before trial,” the court said.
The court noted that Debrah “had a motive to falsely implicate” Smith because Rhonda’s boyfriend was a suspect in the murder. By identifying Smith rather than Rhonda’s boyfriend, “Debrah exonerated her sister’s boyfriend, and at that same time may have deflected suspicion away from her sister,” the court ruled.
In August 2002, Governor George Ryan pardoned Smith based on actual innocence.
– Maurice Possley