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Paula Gray

Other Female Exonerees Who Falsely Confessed
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 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.  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.

At his trial, a forensic scientist for the Illinois Department of Law Enforcement's Bureau of Scientific Services, Michael Podlecki, testified that the vaginal swab from the rape kit contained blood types A and O, the victim was type O, Jimerson and Rainge were type O, and Adams and Williams were type A secretors.

He testified that Jimerson could not be excluded as a contributor to the vaginal swab and noted that 47% of the population shared blood type O with him. However, this was misleading because the portion of the population that could not be excluded was greater than that: in addition to all men with Type O blood, it also included all men with Type A blood, and all Type B and AB "non-secretors" (men who do not secrete their blood type markers into their semen). Thus, the correct figure should have been closer to 80% of the population.

Podlecki also testified that hairs recovered from the back seat of Dennis Williams's red Toyota were "consistent" and "similar" to Lionberg's hair. About the comparison, he testified, "I could not see any differentiation in the characteristics. It was like I was looking at one hair." He also testified that hairs recovered from the rear floorboard and trunk of the car were "similar" to Schmal's hair.

In December 1985, Jimerson was convicted and sentenced to death.

Two years later, on the basis of Gray’s testimony and that of a jailhouse informant, Williams and Rainge were convicted a second time.  Williams again was sentenced to death, and Rainge to life.

In 1995, the Illinois Supreme Court unanimously reversed Jimerson’s conviction and ordered a new trial due to witness perjury.  In 1996, DNA testing exonerated all five defendants. Edward Blake, a forensic serologist and DNA expert, found that Williams was actually a non-secretor, contrary to Podlecki's original testimony. Also, defense attorneys learned that within a week of the crime, a witness told police who the real perpetrators were, but the report wasn't disclosed to the defense.

The DNA identified the real killers: brothers Dennis and Ira Johnson, and Arthur Robinson and Juan Rodriguez. Dennis Johnson died of a drug overdose in 1993. Ira Johnson and Robinson pled guilty to the murders and were sentenced to life in prison. Rodriguez was convicted, got a new trial and was reconvicted. He was sentenced to 65 years in prison.

In 1999, Cook County settled lawsuits filed by the innocent men — known as the “Ford Heights Four” — for $36 million, the largest civil rights payment in U.S. history.

Meanwhile, Gray, represented by attorneys Thomas Decker and Jon Berg, sought the vacate her perjury conviction. In 2001, Cook County Circuit Court Judge William O'Neal vacated the conviction in a 352-page ruling, the longest such ruling in Illinois history. Judge O'Neal issued a scathing rebuke to police and prosecutors, saying, “The coercion of Ms. Gray to tell their concocted, inculpatory story and subsequent suppression of reliable evidence point to the guilt of others was both abhorrent and illegal….Wrong is wrong, be it illegal actions of the street thug or the conduct, as in this matter, by officers of the law and court.”

The prosecution said it would appeal, but that was mooted on November 14, 2002, when Gray received a pardon based on innocence from Governor George Ryan which allowed her to receive $120,300 in state compensation.  On December 18, 2008, the Cook County Board settled the last remaining civil lawsuit and awarded Gray $4 million.

 — Rob Warden

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Posting Date:  Before June 2012
Last Updated: 4/8/2023
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Rape, Perjury
Reported Crime Date:1978
Sentence:50 years
Age at the date of reported crime:17
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, False Confession, False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:Yes