In the early morning hours of July 12, 1991, Gerard Hardy was shot to death while dealing drugs on the corner of 13th Street and Wentworth Avenue in Chicago Heights, Illinois.
In December 1991, a detective interviewed Tony Scales, who said he was across the street at the time of the shooting. Scales identified the gunman as 26-year-old Bernard Ellis, an enforcer for Gangster Disciples street gang. Scales said he was with another man, Ramon Bickham, at the time of the shooting and said he had not come forward earlier because he was scared of what would happen if he identified a gang member.
On January 14, 1992, Bickham, who was in the Shaunee Correctional Center serving a prison term for a narcotics conviction, told authorities that on the night of the shooting, he recognized the gunman as Ellis.
Ellis was arrested and charged with first-degree murder. He went on trial in February 1996 in Cook County Circuit Court.
Scales and Bickham both testified for the prosecution and identified Ellis as the gunman. Both men were facing narcotics charges and both denied that they had received any promises of lenience from the prosecution in exchange for their testimony.
Two other witnesses testified that they had heard Ellis threaten competing drug dealers that unless they paid tribute to the Gangster Disciples they would be shot, just as he had shot Hardy.
No physical evidence linked Ellis to the murder. Ellis, who had prior convictions for robbery and armed robbery, did not testify. The jury convicted Ellis of first-degree murder and he was sentenced to 55 years in prison.
Ellis simultaneously filed a motion for a new trial and a notice of appeal in the summer of 1996. A hearing was held on the motion for new trial. At the hearing, Ellis’s lawyer presented evidence that eight days after Ellis was convicted, Scales and Bickham appeared in court to resolve drug charges against them and both received extremely lenient sentences—one was less than the minimum allowed by law—on the recommendation of the prosecution. Scales also testified and recanted his identification of Ellis. Scales said he had falsely implicated Ellis under pressure from a police detective who promised him lenience on a pending drug charge.
At the hearing, Daniel Darcy, the lead prosecutor in the case, said he “could have” told Scales before Ellis’s trial that if he testified truthfully against Ellis, Darcy would tell the judge presiding over Scales’ narcotics case about his cooperation.
The defense also presented the testimony of Anthony West, who said he also was across the street from the shooting. West testified that Ellis was not the gunman.
The motion for new trial was denied. In August 2000, the Illinois Appellate Court reversed the conviction and ordered a new trial. The court found that the prosecution had allowed Scales and Bickham to lie about whether they had been promised leniency in return for their testimony.
“The combination of lenient sentences and the timing of the sentencing demonstrate that the state knew or should have known that the testimony denying any promises or agreements to benefit Scales and Bickham (was) false and perjurious,” the court said.
Ellis went on trial a second time in October 2001. Scales recanted his recantation and again identified Ellis as the gunman. Bickham also testified and again said Ellis shot Hardy. One of the gang members who claimed he overheard Ellis bragging about shooting Hardy also testified.
The defense called West as a witness and he said he was at the scene of the shooting and that Ellis was not the gunman.
On October 25, 2001, a jury acquitted Ellis and he was released.
Several years later, Ellis was convicted in federal courts in Illinois and Chicago of illegal trafficking of firearms. In 2011, Ellis was sentenced to 40 years in prison.
– Maurice Possley