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Herman Williams

Other Lake County, Illinois exonerations
On September 6, 2022, more than 28 years after Herman Williams was sent to prison for life without for parole for the murder of his ex-wife, Penny, in Lake County, Illinois, his conviction was vacated, the case was dismissed, and he was released.

Not only had the forensic evidence used to convict him been discredited, but DNA testing performed for the first time on scrapings of the victim’s fingernails revealed male DNA that excluded Williams.

The exoneration culminated a lengthy legal battle waged by attorney Lauren Kaeseberg, executive director of the Illinois Innocence Project, and attorney Vanessa Potkin, director of special litigation for the Innocence Project.

Williams and Penny had two children, Charlie and Crystal, when they divorced in 1991 after seven years of marriage. Penny had moved to Arizona with the children to live with her mother. Subsequently, in 1992, Williams remarried to Katherine, also known as “Kitty,” whom he met in a t-shirt shop where she worked in the Lakehurst shopping mall near the naval base.

In the summer of 1993, Williams, 29, was a chief petty officer in the U.S. Navy assigned to the Great Lakes Naval Base in Lake County. He had more than a decade of service, had served two tours in the Gulf War, and also had top secret security clearance. He and Kitty were living at 765 Depot Road, in Gurnee, Illinois, located about seven miles from the base.

Williams learned that summer that he was going to be reassigned to the U.S.S. Gary, a frigate based in San Diego, California. So, Williams invited Penny, who was 27 years old, as well as six-year-old Charlie and three-year-old Crystal, to move in with him. At the same time, Williams asked Kitty to move out. She found an apartment in the Colonial Apartments not far away.

Williams would later testify that he had hoped to reconcile with Penny. But he also testified that his relationship with Penny was “platonic,” and that he continued to have a sexual relationship with Kitty.

On Friday, September 24, 1993, Williams was informed when he arrived at the base that Penny’s purse had been turned in to the police on the base. He got the purse and went to the Gurnee police department. There, he said Penny had not come home on Thursday, the night before. He said he had called the police that night, but was told to wait until she had been missing for 24 hours and to call back. He said he had intended to call the police that morning, but when he learned her purse had been found, he reported to the station immediately.

He was interviewed for hours. His truck was eventually seized, and he walked home more than 12 hours after he arrived at the station. The Lake County Major Crimes Task Force, a unit of detectives, evidence technicians, and other officers drawn from police departments throughout Lake County, was called in on the case.

Ultimately, police and Williams would differ radically on what was said during the various interrogations that took place.

According to Williams, he told police that on the evening of September 22, 1993, he and Penny decided to see a movie. As they often did, they asked a downstairs neighbor, Wayne Ecklund, who had two children the same age as Charlie and Crystal, to babysit.

According to Williams, the movie had already started when they got to the theater, so they skipped it and went window shopping in the mall. He said that he decided to go to the coin-operated car wash to spray mud off his truck. He said he first dropped Penny off at the apartment and then went to wash the truck, using a handheld spray washer. When he was finished, he went to his storage unit to get an ice chest which he had promised to give to Kitty, who was planning a weekend trip to Michigan. But he said he couldn’t find his key to the unit. He stopped and bought an iced tea at a McDonald’s restaurant and drove to Kitty’s apartment.

When he arrived, Kitty complained that a camera he had given her to take on the trip wasn’t working, so they drove to a K-Mart. There, they purchased batteries for the camera, as well as some socks and hair clasps for Crystal. Kitty gave Williams two t-shirts she had made at the t-shirt shop—one for Charlie and one for Crystal.

Williams said he arrived home around 10:30 p.m. He said that Penny was writing a letter to a friend. She had not yet retrieved the children from Ecklund downstairs.

He said they went down and retrieved the children. While there, Williams gave the t-shirts to the children.

Williams said he told the police that the following morning, he and Penny talked in the living room while the children had breakfast. After they finished eating, Charlie walked downstairs to Ecklund’s apartment to go to school with Ecklund’s children. Williams said he dropped Crystal off at the babysitter and went to the naval base.

After finishing up at the naval base, Williams said he came home where he took care of the two children as well as Ecklund’s two children. He grew increasingly concerned when Penny did not come home. Her car was in the parking lot, and she had not left a note. On Thursday night, when he called the Gurnee police department to ask about filing a missing person’s report, Williams said he was told to call back in the morning when 24 hours had passed since he last saw her.

While Williams was being questioned, police went to Charlie’s school. There, when questioned, he said that Penny had poured the milk on his cereal at breakfast. He also said that after he arrived at Ecklund’s apartment, Ecklund asked if Williams wanted Ecklund to pick Charlie up after school. Charlie said he went back upstairs to ask and saw his mother leaving in a car that Charlie did not recognize.

While he was at the police station, Williams consented to a search of his truck. Police impounded the vehicle, and Williams walked home. By that time, police suspected he was responsible for Penny’s disappearance—Penny’s purse had been found on the morning of September 23—the day Williams said he last saw Penny before going to the naval base.

Two days later, on September 26, Penny’s body was found in a shallow pond near the Midlane Country Club in Waukegan, Illinois. She was fully clothed; a floral buttoned shirt tucked into her jeans. An autopsy concluded she had died of blunt force trauma before she was placed in the water. Her arms bore defensive wounds indicating she fought with her attacker. The area was frequented by people who drove off-road vehicles through the mud—an activity known as “boon-docking” or “four-wheeling.” Williams had a Jeep that he used to go boon-docking. As did Ecklund.

Christopher Jones, a co-worker of Penny’s, told police that he and Penny had planned to meet for lunch on Thursday after picking up their paychecks. But she did not show up, Jones said.

On September 30, 1993—five days after Penny’s body was found—Williams was arrested and charged with first-degree murder.

In November 1993, a coroner’s inquest was held. During the inquest, Deputy Chief Corner James Whipper was asked if he knew when Penny was killed. Whipper referred to the findings of Dr. Nancy Jones, the pathologist who had conducted the autopsy. “The only thing that Dr. Jones could expand on is that with the investigation that [Penny] was last seen sometime Wednesday, the condition of the body was found on that Sunday with the weather conditions, things of that nature, it is possible that [Penny] could have been dead a number of days, possibly Wednesday, Thursday. The condition of her body is consistent with her possibly being dead Wednesday or Thursday,” Whipper said.

On February 8, 1994, six days before Williams was to go on trial in Lake County Circuit Court, the lead prosecutor, Michael Mermel, gave a report to the defense from Richard Bisbing of McCrone and Associates. Bisbing explained that he had conducted analysis of soil from the pond as well as on mud found caked on the inside of the right front wheel well of William’s truck. He concluded the mud from the truck was “similar in all respects to the mud” from the pond.

The next day, on February 9, 1994, Williams’s attorney, Barry Boches, objected to the last-minute report because it came after the cut-off date for filing expert reports. The trial judge granted a motion to exclude the evidence. But one day later, the judge granted a prosecution motion to reconsider based on the prosecution’s claim that Boches had known previously that the state was seeking to have a soil analysis performed. The judge also ruled that the defense would be granted an extension of time to find an independent expert to analyze the soil or alternatively that the defense could conduct a deposition of Bisbing at the state’s expense. Boches declined a continuance, did not consult with an expert, and did not take Bisbing’s deposition.

Williams went to trial on February 14, 1994. Mermel and co-prosecutor Robin Goodstein contended that Williams killed Penny so he could take custody of the children and move with Katherine to San Diego. The prosecution believed that Williams killed Penny and dumped her in the pond sometime between 7:45 p.m., when he and Penny left Ecklund’s apartment after dropping off the children and 9:03 p.m.—the time-stamp on the receipt for the drink that Williams bought at McDonald’s before going to Katherine’s apartment.

Because that was the only time period in which Williams’s whereabouts could not be accounted for, establishing the time of Penny’s death was critical to the prosecution’s case.

Dr. Jones, the pathologist who conducted the autopsy, testified that Penny died of blunt force trauma to the head and abdomen. Dr. Jones said that the wounds showed that Penny was attacked in a close-range confrontation, and that she had defensive wounds on her arms. Because there was no water in her stomach or lungs, Dr. Jones determined that Penny was killed before being dumped in the pond.

Prior to Dr. Jones’s testimony, prosecutor Mermel said that Dr. Jones had just been shown—for the first time—a video of the retrieval of the body from the pond. After viewing that video, according to Mermel, Dr. Jones changed her estimate of the time of Penny’s death. Dr. Jones testified that Penny had been killed on Wednesday, September 22, and no later than 1 a.m. on Thursday, September 23. That testimony narrowed the time frame considerably from the original estimate given at the coroner’s inquest.

What Mermel did not disclose to Williams’s defense attorney, Barry Boches, was a memo that Mermel had written to his fellow prosecutor, Goodstein, on December 3, 1993—about two months before the trial. The memo said: “According to Dr. Jones, Penny Williams could have died anytime between Wed 22, evening until late Thursday, 23rd. (Friday unlikely unless very early 1-3 am).”

Gurnee Police Sgt. Gary Garofalo testified that he interviewed Williams when Williams first came to the station with his wife’s purse. Garofalo said that Williams identified Penny as his wife—not his ex-wife—and failed to mention that not only was he divorced from Penny, but that he was married to Kitty. Williams’s first reference to the fact that Penny was his ex-wife came about 45 minutes into the interview, Garofalo said. “[A]nd that kind of startled me,” Garofalo said.

Garofalo claimed that Williams told him that on Thursday morning, Penny was tired from the night before, so he told her to sleep in. Garofalo said Williams told him Penny was still in bed when Williams left to take Crystal to the babysitter.

Garofalo said he asked Williams why he divorced Penny. “And he stated directly to me that he grew tired of their relationship because she put on all her weight; she quit her job; she got lazy, and they were constantly fighting, and he just didn't like being married to her anymore.”

According to Garofalo, Williams said he began communicating with Penny in late 1992 in an attempt to “establish a physical relationship again somehow with his children. The distance between [him] and his kids was too much to take; that he really missed them.”

At 10:30 a.m., nearly 90 minutes into the interview, Garofalo said Williams first mentioned that he was married to Kitty. “I got confused,” Garofalo said.

Garofalo said Williams told him that Kitty had moved out when Penny and the two children arrived. Garofalo said Williams characterized it as " kind of a soap opera…He called it his Camelot Castle. What he dreamed about was–and what he planned was–he wanted to get a four-bedroom house up in this area while he was stationed in Illinois, and also, further, carry this to his new duty station in San Diego. He wanted to have Penny with the kids close in proximity, living under the same roof, and [Kitty] still maintained as his current wife.”

Garofalo told the jury that Williams recounted how, earlier in the year, he and Kitty went to Arizona to pitch this idea to Penny, but she wouldn’t consider it. Williams and Kitty returned to Gurnee, but Williams continued to email and telephone Penny, urging her to come to Illinois, Garofalo said. When Penny refused to come unless he agreed to reconcile and to divorce Kitty, Williams said he “fudged the numbers,” Garofalo said, and further explained to Garofalo that meant telling Penny what she wanted to hear—that he would divorce Kitty and reconcile.

Garofalo said he questioned Williams about whether he and Penny had quarreled about his failure to act on the promise two months after she and the children came to Illinois. “At first, he said, ‘No, we didn’t fight,'’’ Garofalo said. But later on, Garofalo said Williams said he and Penny had “about 10 fights about it, and they got pretty vehement, but she still stayed.”

“He told me at that point in time he had more or less told her that he had made the decision that he couldn't really leave [Kitty], but that he still adamantly wanted to be a father to those children; that she had had the children for a couple of years, and that he felt it was his turn,” Garofalo testified.

Garofalo took a break, arranged for lunch to be brought to Williams, and then met with other officers who had been dispatched earlier to interview Charlie at school as well as workers at the store where Penny worked. Garofalo said he then confronted Williams, saying that Penny was never going to agree to give up her children. Garofalo said he told Williams that “the only thing that would help you in this situation [is] if she is out of the picture. And I looked at him. I hesitated…And I said, ‘You are here making a missing person’s report on your wife. She is out of the picture. Isn’t that seemingly a remedy?’”

Garofalo said Williams “looked up at me, and he just kind of said, ‘I see, Officer, the way it’s going here. You guys seem to think that I had something to do with this; that I know where Penny Williams is.’ And I said, ‘Yes, sir, given the set of circumstances you have just given me for the last few hours, put yourself in our shoes….I feel very strongly; the other officers feel very strongly that you know Penny Williams’s whereabouts at this time.’”

In response, Garofalo said Williams “appeared kind of what I call hound dog effect. He was sitting with his face down, almost, you, very low between his legs. He looked very troubled to me.” Garofalo said Williams said nothing for 30 seconds, before replying, “No, no, no, no, no, Officer. I am sure that sooner or later, Penny would have been into me. She would have given me custody of the kids.”

Garofalo said that when he asked Williams why he went to the naval base that morning instead of going directly to the police station, Williams replied, “I have to report for duty. I have to get to work.”

At that moment, two detectives entered the room, and the conversation stopped. Garofalo said he left the room and, after conferring with a judge, contacted the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, arranged for Charlie and Crystal to be removed from Williams’s apartment. Garofalo said he contacted Kitty, who brought the children to the station.

A crime lab analyst testified that tests were positive for the presence of blood on the carpet on the floor of Williams’s truck and on threads of material from a door handle.

DNA testing was not attempted because an insufficient amount of DNA was recovered from the door handle threads and carpet. The analyst said that the blood from the truck door handle threads was type O, the same type as both Penny and Williams. Blood typing tests of the truck carpet were inconclusive. The analyst said that human blood was present on the left shoe of a pair of gym shoes that had been seized from Williams. There was insufficient evidence to perform DNA testing. The analyst said no blood type could be determined.

The jury was informed that prior to trial, the prosecution had submitted scrapings from Penny’s fingernails to the Northern Illinois Police Crime Laboratory. Given the limitations of DNA technology at that time— which required a larger amount of biological evidence than would be required years later to obtain a genetic profile—no testing was performed.

A sexual assault kit had been collected from Penny at autopsy. The analyst said no sperm or seminal fluid was detected.

Bisbing, the soil expert, testified that he analyzed soil samples from the truck and the pond for 50 different characteristics. Bisbing testified at the trial that: “My opinion is that the soil identified from the right front wheel well of the truck is similar in all respects to the one soil sample taken from Midlane Lake identified as from in the water. Those soils are consistent; it’s consistent that they originated from the same place or, in other word[s], the soil from the truck could have originated from that spot at Midlane Lake.”

The prosecution played a video from a surveillance camera at the K-Mart showing Williams and Kitty in the store. In addition, Kitty testified that Williams showed up unexpectedly at her apartment that night. She said his shirt was damp and the floor under his feet was wet. She said he was wearing a pair of beat up tennis shoes.

Kitty also testified that on Thursday night she went to Williams’s apartment to help him take care of Charlie and Crystal. She said she spent the night there and helped get Charlie off to school on Friday. The prosecution contended having Kitty stay over was evidence that Williams knew Penny was not coming home.

Wayne Ecklund testified that in the hours before Williams and Penny went out to see a movie, Williams had helped Ecklund fix the alternator and starter on Ecklund’s Jeep. He testified that Williams had to retrieve a device from his apartment to check to see if the alternator was working properly.

"[A]nd he came back,” Ecklund testified. “I was laying underneath the Jeep putting a front drive shaft back in…he said that he was going to kill the… bitch.”

Ecklund also testified that when he originally told police that Williams and Penny came together to pick up Charlie and Crystal that night, he had lied.

“I told them I saw Penny,” Ecklund testified. “I got drunk. I fell asleep in my chair. I was supposed to be watching the kids, and I was embarrassed, and I didn't want to let everybody know that, and the kids ended up babysitting me instead of me babysitting them, so I was trying to cover my own tracks.”

Mermel asked, “Sir, what is the truth of the matter? Did you see Penny Williams or did you not see Penny Williams?”

“I did not see Penny Williams,” Ecklund testified.

Ecklund said he saw Williams the following day as he was taking pillows and blankets out of his truck. Ecklund said Williams’s truck was “full of mud….It was pretty thick.”

Ecklund’s seven-year-old son, Cody, testified that on that Wednesday morning, his father sent him and Charlie back upstairs to find out who was supposed to pick them up after school. Cody testified that Charlie never said he saw his mother leave in the car with a stranger.

Ecklund’s wife, Desiree, testified that she and her husband had gone boon-docking near the Midlane Country Club with Penny and Williams in the past. Under questioning by Goodstein, Desiree recalled an instance when they stopped at a pond shortly after they arrived at Midland. “We stopped there because it was one of my favorite places, and [Penny] said that it was the most scenic, serene, peaceful setting she had ever seen, and it was very beautiful. And she thanked me for bringing her out there. She really loved it.”

Goodstein asked, “Was that where the body was found?”

“Yes,” Desiree replied.

Desiree and Wayne Ecklund both testified that Williams never took his truck four-wheeling—always his Jeep. And both said Williams was fastidious about keeping his truck clean—inside and out.

Desiree testified that on the Thursday when Penny disappeared, she saw Williams in the parking lot removing pillows and blankets from his truck. She said the vehicle was “covered in mud.”

Cindy O’Brian, who worked with Penny at the Syms clothing store, testified that Penny told her that she “was going to cuff her ex-husband and just stay in Illinois with her kids and continue working at Syms where she had made friends.”

Waukegan police detective Lou Tessman testified that he was the deputy commander of the Lake County Major Crimes Task Force. Tessman testified that on September 30, after Williams was arrested, Tessman began interviewing Williams about 4 p.m. Tessman said that when he entered the interrogation room, Williams was sitting in a comfortable chair, drinking coffee, and chatting with the head of the task force. Tessman said that when he asked Williams about his pending transfer to San Diego since Penny had custody of the children and he had a second wife.

According to Tessman, Williams said, “I have worked that out.” And when Tessman asked what that solution was, Williams said, “I was going to get rid of one of them.”

Tessman testified that he told Williams: “Herman, I believe that you are responsible for causing the death of Penny…After I made that comment…I looked at him…and it appeared to be his eyes were filling up with water, as if someone would be crying, from my experience.”

At that point, Tessman said Williams “put his head down in a downward motion like this, and then I…continued to talk to him, and he put his head back up and then looked at me again.”

Tessman said he told Williams, “Herman, I think things got out of hand that night, am I right?”

In response, Williams’s “head went up and down,” Tessman said. Tessman said it “wasn’t a motion where his head just fell on his chest and he raised it again,” but rather, “it went up and down several times in an up and down motion.”

Tessman next said, “You didn’t mean to kill Penny, did you?”

At that, for the first time, Williams’s head “went . . . side to side several times.” Tessman said, “I know you are sorry for what you did to Penny, aren’t you?” Tessman said Williams “shook his head up and down,” and replied, “I know what I did was wrong, and I am sorry for what happened.”

Tessman told the jury that Williams asked to be left alone for about 15 minutes to think about it and “get the whole thing back in picture, back in his head.” Tessman testified that Williams said Tessman should bring his notebook so Williams could give “the entire story.” Williams also asked for another cup of coffee, according to Tessman.

Tessman said that he left Williams alone, and, when he returned, Williams told him, “You know…you are really a nice guy, and I would like to tell you what happened, but I am not going to.”

Veronica Jones testified that she knew Williams because she lived in the same apartment complex as he did. She said that on Thursday, September 23, Williams gave her a ride to a doctor’s appointment and picked her up afterward. She said that he mentioned that Penny had not come home and that he was considering filing a missing person’s report.

“I said, no,” Jones testified. “I said she be back later; she went out with her friends.” During cross-examination, Jones said that when she was first interviewed by police, she said she saw Penny before she and Williams went out the day before. Jones said that Penny was wearing a pin-striped shirt. The defense contended that because Penny was wearing a floral shirt when found, she must have come home that Wednesday night and put the floral shirt on Thursday morning.

A police officer testified that when Charlie was interviewed at school on Friday—the day Williams reported Penny missing—the boy said that on Thursday morning, Penny was home. The boy said she had poured milk in his cereal for him. The officer also testified that he interviewed Ecklund, who reported that the boy told Ecklund “something to the effect that he had seen his mom get picked up by somebody in a car.”

Leo Arispe, an intellectually disabled man and a native Spanish speaker, testified without an interpreter. He said that he found Penny’s purse while searching for cans to recycle for cash. During Arispe’s testimony, Mermel played a video showing a dumpster that was located about 200 feet from the apartment where Kitty was living. When asked what time he found the purse, Arispe said, “Four. Twelve.”

During cross-examination, he said, “I found it in garbage can; big can; find it.” He added, “I look all around, all around garbage can; cans beer.”

Arispe also said he found the purse at the side of a road. He said he didn’t remember where he lived or the name of the street. He said he didn’t remember what day he found the purse.

However, the initial police reports made when the purse was turned in at the naval base and then to the Gurnee police department said the purse had been found in a garbage can at the Park City car wash. Police had tracked down the person who turned in the purse and ultimately determined that Arispe had found it. Arispe’s sister told police that her brother “has the mind of a child” and that he found it in a dumpster near the Colonial Apartments. That was the complex where Kitty lived.

Boches, Williams’s attorney, objected and, during a conference outside the presence of the jury, asked that Arispe’s testimony be stricken because he could not remember on his own where or when he found it. The judge denied that motion, but said he would suspend the cross-examination until another day when an interpreter could be located. However, Boches never attempted to resume the cross-examination with an interpreter and later stipulated that the purse was found in the dumpster near Kitty’s apartment on Thursday, September 23.

Jamie Correa, the fiancé of Arispe’s sister, testified that he turned the purse, which contained information showing that Penny’s children had medical benefits from the U.S. Navy, in at the naval base where he worked. Although the police reports said that Correa reported that the purse was found in a garbage can at the car wash, Mermel did not elicit that information and instead elicited contradictory testimony.

Mermel asked, “Did you make any statements to the Navy personnel that you turned this into where you thought it had been found?”

“No,” Correa replied.

Jean McCrea, Penny’s mother, testified that Penny told her that she had no intention of leaving Illinois with Williams. She also said that Penny told her that there was “no way” that Penny would allow Williams to have custody of Charlie and Crystal.

“She told me that [Williams] had told her that the only way that he could get the Navy to pay for their moving to San Diego was that if he had custody of the children, and she had told me no way,” McCrea testified.

The prosecution also presented documents that Williams had filled out in order to receive compensation for moving to San Diego. The documents, which had been filed out before Penny came to Gurnee from Arizona, listed Kitty, Charlie and Crystal. There was no mention of Penny. The prosecution contended this showed that Williams was plotting even before Penny came to Illinois to take the children from her.

Boches called Charlie to testify for the defense about his statements to police when he was interviewed at school. However, he said he did not remember saying that he saw his mother at breakfast and did not remember saying that she had left in the car of a stranger.

Boches recalled Veronica Jones to the witness stand. He noted that when first interviewed by police, Jones said she saw Penny and Williams leaving on Wednesday night and Penny was wearing a “men’s type white long sleeve shirt with blue lines and the sleeves rolled up.” Jones had been interviewed a second time and shown a photograph of Penny after she was found showing she was wearing a floral-patterned shirt. Jones said that was not the shirt Penny was wearing when she saw them leaving that Wednesday night.

Asked about these statements, Jones first denied making them, then said she didn’t remember, and finally said it was possible that she made the statements.

Williams testified and denied killing Penny. He denied telling Garofalo that Penny had gotten fat and lazy and claimed that Garofalo coined the phrase “Camelot Castle.” Garofalo was “wording things to suit his needs,” Williams said.

Williams also testified that he was handcuffed and not drinking coffee as Tessman claimed. He denied confessing to the crime.

He said that his clothes and shoes got wet when he took his truck to wash it just before he came to Kitty’s apartment. “Parts of my clothes were wet, and my shoes were pretty wet from spraying off the truck,” he testified.

He said he listed Kitty and the two children on the transfer form because he was advised to do so by the navy. Kitty was his legal wife, and the two children were his dependents to receive medical benefits, he said. The form was printed out automatically based on his records, Williams said.

During closing arguments, the prosecutors said that Williams lured Penny and the children to Illinois with a plan to get rid of Penny so he could have custody of the children and move to San Diego with them and Kitty.

Mermel tried to reconcile the contradiction between Jones’s testimony that when she last saw Penny, Penny was wearing a pinstriped shirt and the evidence that when Penny’s body was found, she was wearing a floral shirt. Mermel contended that Penny must have donned a floral shirt over the pinstriped shirt after Jones saw her.

“We have all seen people wearing two shirts,” Mermel declared. “It is a fashion that just about all of us have probably done. Where is that other shirt that she might have been wearing? Well, it might be in a couple of places. There would have been a lot of blood when he bashed in her head, and that blood may have gone on her shirt. He may have used that shirt for any number of reasons, and quite frankly, that shirt may well have been in the dumpster.”

That argument was false. The pinstriped shirt had been found in the apartment and was taken as evidence by police who searched Williams’s apartment.

Mermel and Goodstein pointed to the soil evidence as proof that Williams dumped Penny in the pond. They argued that her time of death supported the argument that Penny was killed on Wednesday night. They pointed to the naval transfer papers filled out on September 17, 1993 as evidence that Williams had begun plotting her death. On the form, which was used to obtain moving funds, Williams listed Kitty and the two children.

On February 18, 1994, the jury convicted Williams of first-degree murder. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

Williams was appointed a new attorney for post-trial motions and on appeal following allegations that Boches had been using drugs during the trial. (Boches would disappear in 2020 and was still missing in September 2022.) Williams’s conviction was upheld on appeal.

Years later, Kaeseberg and Potkin began representing Williams. In 2016, a motion for DNA testing was granted. Other forensic experts were consulted as well. And on July 1, 2022, the lawyers filed an 81-page petition for relief.

“New evidence and modern applications of science refute the State’s trial evidence, establishing that Mr. Williams was wrongfully convicted based on faulty forensic science, gross ineffective assistance of counsel, and police and prosecutorial misconduct,” the petition declared. “There is no remaining credible evidence linking Mr. Williams to the murder and to the contrary, forensic evidence the jury did not hear points to unknown male perpetrator(s) and makes it improbable that Mr. Williams even would have had the opportunity to commit the crime.”

The evidence included:

-- DNA testing by Forensic Analytical Crime Laboratory (FACL) of the scrapings of Penny’s fingernails identified the DNA of a male and excluded Williams. The evidence that Penny struggled with her attacker strongly suggested the male DNA was that of her assailant.

-- FACL tested the blood said to have been Penny’s that was found on Williams’s truck. The tests showed that none of the blood came from Penny.

-- FACL testing showed no blood was on William’s tennis shoes, contrary to the testimony at trial.

-- FACL conducted DNA testing on Penny’s purse and the contents. Male DNA was found on the checkbook. Williams was excluded as the source of that DNA.

-- Dr. James Filkins, a pathologist, reviewed Dr. Jones’s autopsy findings and trial testimony. He concluded that: “Dr. Jones’s determination of the time of Ms. Williams’s death is incorrect and unsupported by the evidence.” Dr. Filkins reported that he believed Penny’s death occurred “about 24 to 36 hours prior to her recovery from the pond, that is, sometime on Saturday, September 25, 1993.”

-- The Lake County State’s Attorney’s Office consulted with forensic pathologist Dr. Eimad Zakariya, who agreed that the testimony given by Dr. Jones at the time of trial— that the time of death was no later than Wednesday night or before 1:00 a.m. on Thursday— was unsupported.

-- Jack Hietpas and Skip Palenik, forensic experts from Microtrace, a forensic analysis and consulting firm, reviewed the soil comparison in this case and found that “there are issues at each stage of the analysis” which rendered the original testimony unreliable. The review determined that much of the original methods were “rudimentary and subjective” and that new scientific advances exist which would provide a much more reliable and scrutinizing analysis of soil comparison. Hietpas and Palenik noted that “a great deal of additional and more advanced analyses [are] available that would provide a more objective, detailed and significant comparison” today using modern scientific techniques. They said the prosecution’s “soil matching” argument was not supported by any science.

-- Lou Tessman, who had claimed Williams confessed, had a history of obtaining false confessions. “This history includes involvement in the arrest and known wrongful conviction of several innocent individuals based on fabricated confession evidence and false testimony,” the petition said. These include Jason Strong and Juan Rivera, both convicted and exonerated of murders. In another instance, Tessman had said that after a baby was found dead in a plastic bag, Colleen Blue confessed to giving birth to the baby, then putting the baby in a bag to kill it. She was charged with murder based on the statement, but the charge was later dismissed before trial because DNA tests showed the baby was not Blue’s and there was no evidence she had been pregnant or had a baby.

-- The members of the task force “engaged in a pattern of known coercive methods that resulted in witnesses changing statements to fit the State’s theory. These witnesses include, but are not limited to, Kitty Williams, Wayne Ecklund and Charlie Williams,” the petition said.

-- Boches, Williams’s defense attorney, failed to retain experts to challenge the forensic evidence, failed to impeach prosecution witnesses with prior statements that were favorable to Williams, and failed to present evidence that, after Williams was arrested, Lake County State’s Attorney Michael Waller reported that Williams “made no statements to authorities about his former wife’s death after his arrest.” Boches also failed to present evidence that the pinstriped shirt that Penny was seen wearing on Wednesday night had been recovered from the apartment, suggesting that the floral print shirt she was wearing when found in the pond had been donned the following day—Thursday. Boches also failed to call another resident of the Depot Road apartment complex who said he saw Penny wearing a “light-colored, possibly striped shirt” on Wednesday night. Boches failed to point out that the K-Mart video showed Williams wearing black shoes—not the beat up tennis shoes Kitty said he was wearing—the same shoes that a crime lab analyst erroneously claimed were bloodstained. The petition said Boches failed to seek out surveillance video that would support Williams’s account of how he and Penny, after deciding not to go to the movie, went shopping. Boches also failed to present evidence that Williams had obtained permission from his landlord to allow Penny to remain in the apartment after he was transferred to San Diego.

-- Mermel falsely argued to the jury that the pin-striped shirt no longer existed. He told the jury, “Where is that other [striped] shirt that she might have been wearing? Well, it might be a couple places. There would have been a lot of blood when he bashed in her head, and that blood may have gone on her shirt. He may have used that shirt for any number of reasons, and quite frankly, that shirt may have been in the dumpster where Leo found the purse, but Leo wasn’t looking for shirts...” ln fact, that striped shirt was in the evidence room, the petition said. Mermel allowed Correa to testify falsely that he never said where he found the purse, the petition said. Mermel failed to disclose his memo to Goodstein reporting that Dr. Jones initial time of death estimate was anywhere from Wednesday until late Thursday and possibly early Friday.

-- Mermel “created a false impression that it was certain that the purse was found in the dumpster at the apartment before noon on Thursday when an examination of the police reports and even Arispe’s testimony show that is anything but certain,” the petition said. “The prosecution knew this created a false impression of certainty around this evidence and it was material to the case. This known false testimony was then exploited by Mermel to argue to the jury.”

The petition concluded by saying: “[T]here can be no reasonable conclusion made other than Mr. Williams was deprived of his constitutional right to a fair trial and due process. He has maintained his actual innocence for three decades and there now exists newly-discovered evidence to support his innocence.”

The Lake County State’s attorney’s office joined in the motion to vacate the conviction. On September 6, 2022, Lake County Circuit Court Judge Mark Levitt vacated the conviction, and the prosecution dismissed the case.

Lake County State’s Attorney Eric Rinehart issued a statement saying: “Every conviction must have integrity, must be grounded in science and in fact, be the product of a fair police investigation and trial,” the statement said. “Because of deeply erroneous scientific evidence, new DNA results, and a faulty trial, our office was compelled to agree to Mr. Williams’[s] release.”

“This horrific crime not only robbed two children of their mother, but because of a flawed investigation, lies from police and prosecutors, and withheld evidence, they also had their father taken from them, “declared Kaeseberg. “Mr. Williams lost nearly three decades of his life, and his children had to grow up thinking their own father killed their mother because of the misconduct and faulty forensics that plagued this case.”

In August 2023, Williams filed a federal lawsuit against numerous police officers and others, including Tessman and Mermel, seeking compensation for his wrongful conviction.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 9/26/2022
Last Updated: 8/24/2023
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:1993
Sentence:Life without parole
Age at the date of reported crime:29
Contributing Factors:False Confession, False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:Yes