At 4 p.m. on July 15, 1990, three men robbed the Jolly Skot Tavern in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. One of the robbers jumped over the bar holding a shotgun and forced the bartender to lie on the floor. He then asked his accomplices, “Should I pop him?” One of the accomplices urged him to do so, but he did not. Instead he took $200 from the bartender’s pocket. One of the other two robbers, who was armed with a handgun, took money and valuables from two customers, James Davis and Jane Dornuf. The robbers then fled.
Two hours later, police stopped a car carrying three men—Leother Lobley, Clifford Beasley and 24-year-old Vonaire Washington. Police claimed Washington was sitting in the front passenger seat, where they found a blue gym bag containing two 12-gauge shotguns and shells.
All three men were taken to the tavern. The bartender did not identify any of them. The customers who had been robbed did not identify Leother Lobley or Clifford Beasley, but they identified Washington as the robber with the shotgun. Lobely and Beasley were dropped as suspects.
Two days later, police arrested James Johnson. At the time of the arrest they found Johnson with a pistol and Dornuf’s driver’s license. When Johnson was put in a live lineup, Davis and the bartender were unable to identify him by sight. When Johnson was told to say, “Should I pop him?” the bartender said he recognized the voice as belonging to the man who jumped over the bar. Dornuf identified Johnson in the lineup. Washington and Johnson were charged with armed robbery and illegal possession of a firearm.
They went on trial in Milwaukee County Circuit Court in December 1991. Prior to the trial, Washington gave his lawyer the names of 14 alibi witnesses whom he said could testify that he was with them on the day of the crime, and was not involved in the robbery. The lawyer, Isadore Engle, who had been practicing law for more than 40 years, did not contact any of these witnesses. Two of the alibi witnesses did testify, but only after Washington contacted them on his own from jail. Engle later claimed that he tried to contact one of the witnesses, but she did not have a telephone. He said left a business card at her home. On the day before the trial began, Engle issued a subpoena for the witness, but he was too late—by then the woman was out of town.
Dornuf, Davis and the bartender described for the jury the events of the robbery. Dornuf identified both men and Davis identified Washington. The bartender identified Johnson based on his voice.
A police officer testified that about two hours after the robbery, he saw a car with three men in and stopped the vehicle. The officer said that Washington got out of the front passenger door and that the guns were on the floor in front of the front passenger seat.
The two witnesses that Washington was able to contact from jail testified that Washington was with them at the time of the crime. They explained that he had spent the day with them, in part because the car he was driving wouldn’t start.
Washington testified that on the day of the robbery, he was staying with Sandra Blue and had borrowed her car at about noon to go to Gola Richardson's house. There, he said he watched The Great Escape, starring Steve McQueen, with Richardson, her sister Sharon Brown and her brother, David Brown. After the movie, Washington testified that Sandra Blue paged him on his beeper. Washington said that about 3:30 p.m. or 4 p.m., he went to a nearby tavern and called Blue because there was no phone at Gola Richardson’s house. Blue wanted her car back, but Washington told her that it would not start, and that he was stranded at Gola Richardson’s house.
Washington said that he returned to Gola Richardson’s house, and around 5:00 or 5:45, two of his acquaintances pulled up in a car driven by Leother Lobley. Washington testified that he got into the back seat of the car—he said the police were “incorrect” to say that he had been in the front seat—and they drove off. Washington said not long after, police stopped the car and he was arrested.
On December 17, 1991, a jury convicted both men of armed robbery and illegal possession of a firearm. Each was sentenced to 22 years in prison.
Washington filed a motion for a new trial on the ground that his trial had been unconstitutionally unfair because Engle had failed to investigate the case or contact his alibi witnesses, but the motion was rejected.
In 1997, after his state appeals were denied, Washington’s new lawyer, Robert Henak, filed a petition for a federal writ of habeas corpus. At a hearing on the petition, Washington presented evidence that prior to trial Engle had a copy of a police report that said that the driver of the car with the shotguns told police that the guns belonged to a man named “Shorty” and that Washington had nothing to do with the guns. Several of Washington’s alibi witnesses testified that Washington was not involved in the crime. In fact, they said he was with them that afternoon watching The Great Escape.
In April 1999, U.S. District Judge Lynn Adelman issued the writ. Adelman found that Engle failed to provide a constitutionally adequate defense because he did not investigate the case, did not call Washington’s alibi witnesses, and did not follow up on the police report and call the witness who would have testified that the guns found in the car in which Washington was arrested did not belong to Washington.
In July 2000, the Seventh Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals upheld the decision to issue the writ and vacated Washington’s convictions. On March 22, 2001, the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s Office dismissed the charges and Washington was released.
– Maurice Possley