Between December 1989 and September 1990, a series of armed robberies and rapes occurred in beauty salons across the Chatham neighborhood of Chicago, Illinois. A man tagged as the “beauty shop rapist” walked into beauty salons with a gun, ordered the women into the back rooms, forced them to undress and robbed them of money and jewelry. Two of the five robberies also involved sexual assaults.
An anonymous tip led police to John Willis, a tavern custodian with previous non-violent theft convictions. Willis was arrested on September 14, 1990, and placed in an 11-man lineup, where he was “positively” identified by both rape victims and other eyewitnesses as the perpetrator. Willis was charged with both of the robberies involving sexual assaults, one on May 2, 1990 and the other on September 7, 1990.
While Willis was in jail, where he was held without bond, crimes similar to those attributed to him continued to occur.
Willis was tried separately for the two robberies involving sexual assaults. In early 1992, he was tried by a jury for the first crime. Physical evidence had been collected at the scene, including the perpetrator’s semen, but none of the evidence tied Willis to the crime. Pamela Fish, Chicago Crime Lab analyst, testified that her analysis of the semen from the crime scene was “inconclusive” because the quantity of biological material was too small to test. In the absence of a conclusive forensic finding, the jury relied on eyewitness testimony. Willis was convicted on February 13, 1992, and sentenced to 45 years.
In April 1992, Chicago police arrested Dennis McGruder for a series of five rapes and robberies that occurred between November 11, 1991 and March 21, 1992. The crimes, to which McGruder pled guilty, followed the same pattern as the rape/robberies for which Willis had been convicted.
Willis was tried by a jury for the second crime in November 1993. The prosecution’s case again rested solely on identification testimony by the rape victim and other eyewitnesses. Willis’s attorneys tried to introduce McGruder’s photo into the trial. Willis and McGruder resembled each other, although Willis was several inches taller and heavier than McGruder. The prosecution successfully argued to the judge that McGruder’s crimes were not relevant to Willis’s case. Willis was again found guilty and sentenced to an additional 100 years. The prosecutors dismissed the three remaining robbery charges.
In 1997, Willis petitioned for additional DNA testing under a new post-conviction DNA statute, but the Assistant State’s Attorney claimed that the DNA material no longer existed. However, in September 1998, Willis’s lawyers located the original test slide containing the semen sample from the first rape for which Willis was convicted. Further DNA testing identified Dennis McGruder as the rapist, and Willis was finally excluded as the perpetrator.
Willis was released on February 24, 1999, eight and one-half years after his arrest. He was officially cleared of both crimes on March 15, 1999, and he received settlements of $1.25 million from Cook County, $1.25 million from the City of Chicago, and $100,000 from the State of Illinois. He also received an award of $125,035.97 from the Illinois Court of Claims.
— Center on Wrongful Convictions