On September 8, 1989, the skeletal remains of 27-year-old Billy Joe Simmons were found in a cornfield west of Rockford, Illinois. Police determined that Simmons had last been seen alive in the early morning hours of August 7, 1989.
Witnesses told police that during the afternoon of August 6, Simmons was with Clementhis Lambert, Clementhis’s brother, Frederick Lambert, and their friend, 30-year-old Timothy Chatmon. Sometime after midnight, witnesses said, they heard gunshots in the alley near Simmons’ residence, but no one said they saw the shooting. Police believed the shooting was drug-related.
Police determined that Clementhis had a relationship with Lori Mullins, a prostitute who worked the sex trade at truck stops across the country and had accumulated a long list of arrests under several different names. Investigators found her in a jail in Billings, Montana, where she had been arrested on a charge of prostitution.
After hours of questioning and after investigators threatened to charge her with helping to dispose of a murder victim, Mullins implicated the Lambert brothers and Chatmon in the murder of Simmons, and they were arrested and charged with first degree murder.
The three were tried separately in Winnebago County Circuit Court. Frederick and Chatmon were tried first, at the same time but in separate courtrooms before separate juries on the same floor of the Winnebago County Courthouse.
Mullins testified in Chatmon’s trial that she was with the three men and that they drove to Simmons’s residence where Frederick asked Simmons to walk into an alley because he wanted to talk to him. Mullins said that an argument erupted and Frederick shot Simmons, and that then Clementhis and Chatmon shot Simmons as well.
She told the jury that Frederick and Chatmon put Simmons in Frederick’s car and drove to a rural area west of Rockford. Mullins said she rode with Clementhis in his car and they followed Frederick. They all stopped next to a cornfield where she said that Clementhis shot Simmons again through the back seat of the car, then they wrapped him in a blanket and dumped him in the field.
On cross-examination, Mullins admitted she had given six different statements to police. In three of the statements, she said Chatmon shot Simmons as did the others. In three other statements, she said only Frederick and Clementhis shot Simmons. She also admitted that police told her she could be charged and face as much as 30 years in prison for helping dispose of a body.
On January 31, 1990, Chatmon was convicted of first degree murder. The following day, Frederick Lambert was convicted. Chatmon was sentenced to 35 years in prison. Frederick was sentenced to 40 years in prison. Clementhis was tried later and was acquitted.
Chatmon filed a motion for a new trial based on Mullins’ testimony at Clementhis’s trial in which she said that she never saw Chatmon shoot Simmons, although she still maintained that Chatmon was present when Simmons was shot. The motion was denied.
In 1992, the Illinois Appellate Court upheld Chatmon’s conviction.
In 1994, Chatmon filed a hand-written federal petition for a writ of habeas corpus. The petition was assigned to a young lawyer, Eugene Doherty, who, after completing a clerkship with the state appellate court, had begun working as a civil lawyer in 1991. He had joined the federal trial bar and agreed to accept a certain number of federal cases filed by defendants without a lawyer.
When Doherty was appointed to handle Chatmon’s habeas petition, he discovered the petition would be dismissed out of hand because Chatmon still had avenues of appeal in the state court that needed to be exhausted before the federal court would accept a habeas petition. Doherty decided that rather than just watching the federal petition fail, he would meet with Chatmon.
During their conversation in prison, Chatmon told Doherty that friends had been telling him that Mullins was in Rockford and telling people on the street that she had lied about Chatmon’s involvement. Chatmon agreed that his federal petition should be dismissed while the case was pursued in state court, and Doherty agreed to represent him in state court.
Doherty arranged for Mullins to come to his office where, with a court reporter taking notes, Mullins admitted that she had lied. She said she wasn’t at the shooting at all.
Doherty filed a post-conviction petition in Winnebago County Circuit Court identifying 48 different lies Mullins told at Chatmon’s trial. At the hearing, Mullins testified that her testimony implicating Chatmon was a lie because she wasn’t even present when Simmons was shot. Doherty presented evidence that Mullins had an IQ of 69, that she had been previously shot in the head, and that she was a heavy drug user at the time of the crime.
In January 1995, Judge Robert Coplan granted the petition, vacated Chatmon’s conviction and ordered a new trial. Chatmon was released on bond in February 1995. The prosecution appealed, but in October 1995, the Illinois Appellate Court upheld Coplan’s decision. The prosecution dismissed the murder charge against Chatmon on November 30, 1995. Frederick Lambert’s conviction was reversed on legal grounds and he pled guilty instead of going to trial a second time. Frederick was also convicted of a second, unrelated murder.
Chatmon later filed a federal lawsuit against the Winnebago County Sheriff’s Office seeking compensation, but it was dismissed.
– Maurice Possley