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Bernard Williams

Other Cook County, Illinois homicide exonerations
At 4:45 p.m. on August 23, 1996, two gunmen opened fire at people standing in front of Wash’s Place, a tavern in the 4200 block of West Madison Street in Chicago, Illinois. Forty-four-year-old Gary Thomas was killed. Three others—16-year-old Crystal Pope, 40-year-old Lucinda Birmingham, and 38-year-old Charles Mitchell were wounded.

Two others present were unharmed: Eric Smith, the apparent intended target, who was the leader of a renegade group of members of the Traveling Vice Lords street gang, and Smith’s friend, Martinoe Powell.

On September 11, 1996, police arrested 17-year-old Bernard Williams and 17-year-old DeAngelo Johnson. Following interrogation by Chicago police detective Kriston Kato, both were reported to have confessed and implicated each other. Both were charged with first-degree murder and three counts of aggravated battery with a firearm.

In October 1998, Williams and Johnson went to trial in Cook County Circuit Court. Johnson chose to have a jury hear his case. Williams chose to have his case heard at the same time, but decided by the trial judge, Fred Suria.

Birmingham testified that she was walking home from a store when she stopped to hug Mitchell, who was a friend. As she walked away, she heard noises and realized she had been shot in the leg. She fell to the ground in a vacant lot next to the tavern. She said people were running around, including two men, both 18 or 19 years old. One was wearing a black t-shirt and black jogging pants. One had his hair braided. One had muscular arms.

Pope testified that she was walking on the street with her cousin when she noticed her arm was bleeding. At first, she said she did not feel anything, but then she fell to the street and passed in and out of consciousness. She said the bullet passed through her arm and lodged near her spine, where it remained.

Mitchell testified that after the shooting, he noticed that he had been shot in the leg. He said he was treated and released for a through-and-through wound.

Powell testified that he was living in Rockford, Illinois at the time and was visiting with his 10-year-old son. He said he was talking with Smith, who he said was the leader of a gang called “Dog Pound.” Powell said that just before the gunfire, Smith looked down the street and said, “Man, look here come those…(obscenity) Travelers.” Powell testified he understood that to mean members of the Traveling Vice Lords. Both were dressed in black hooded sweatshirts and black gloves, Powell said. He said that he ran away with his son, and then drove to pick up Thomas’s wife to take her to the hospital.

Powell identified Williams and Johnson as the gunmen. He said that they were about 20 feet away when they pulled out guns and began shooting. He testified that on September 2, 1996, several days after the shooting, he viewed a group of five photographs and identified two of them—Williams and Johnson—as the shooters. Powell said that on September 11, 1996, he viewed a live lineup and again picked Williams and Johnson.

Powell admitted that in May 1998, several months before the trial, he had pled guilty to a felony narcotics charge and was sentenced to four years in prison. During cross-examination, Powell admitted that when police arrived at the scene of the shooting, he did not tell them what he had seen, but did so when police came to the hospital. He said the sweatshirts covered the shooters’ arms, contradicting Birmingham’s description that one of the gunmen had muscular arms.

Dr. Barry Lifschultz, a forensic pathologist with the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office, testified that Thomas died from a single gunshot wound.

Thomas Reynolds, a police forensic investigator, testified that he recovered five nine-millimeter shell casings and two fired bullets. Brian Mayland, an Illinois state police firearms analyst, testified that four of the casings were fired by the same gun and one casing was fired by another gun. He said he was unable to say whether the recovered bullets came from the recovered casings.

Detective Kato testified that on September 2, 1996, he and his partner, Sam Cerone, located Smith. He said after interviewing Smith, they began looking for Williams. Kato said that he, Cerone and another detective, Patricia Warner, met with Powell on September 2 and showed him the photographs. Kato said Powell only picked Williams, contradicting Powell’s testimony that he picked both Williams and Johnson.

Kato said that on September 11, shortly after midnight, he and other officers spotted Williams driving a car and stopped the vehicle. The car contained two passengers who identified themselves as Donald Ware and Shawn Harris. Ware, Kato said, was actually Johnson.

Kato testified that after reading Williams his Miranda warnings, Williams agreed to speak with him. Kato said Williams said he had no knowledge of the shooting, and that he was with Johnson and Harris at a shopping mall several miles away at the time of the attack. Williams said he did not know Smith or anyone from the Dog Pound gang.

Kato said that he intended to conduct a live lineup, but he was unable to find Smith or Powell. The following day, September 12, Kato said he found Powell and conducted a five-person lineup. Kato said he then had a conversation with Williams and told Williams that he had been identified in the lineup.

Kato testified that Williams again denied involvement. However, Kato said Williams said that he was having problems with Smith and that Smith had shot at him on several prior occasions. Kato said he suspected Johnson was involved because Williams said Johnson was a member of the Traveling Vice Lords.

Kato went back out to look for Smith but could not find him. At 8 p.m. that night, Kato said he went back to the interview room with Detective Warner. According to Kato, Williams said that after Smith shot at him, Williams “said he was not going to take that anymore.” Kato said Williams told him he got a nine-millimeter handgun and drove around until he saw Smith and other members of the Dog Pound. Kato said Williams admitted he stopped the car and walked up the street before he began firing. Kato testified, “He shot at them, everybody ran. He then ran to his car and left the scene.”

Kato testified that when prosecutors arrived and entered the room, Williams said he had already spoken to Kato and now he wanted an attorney. The conversation ended at that point.

During cross-examination, Kato said his conversations with Williams had not been recorded and that he did not have handwritten notes.

Williams testified and denied involvement in the shooting. He denied that he told Kato that he fired any shots. He said that he told Kato that he knew his Miranda rights and had an attorney. Williams said he was not allowed to call his lawyer. During cross-examination, Williams denied being a member of the Traveling Vice Lords, denied knowing Smith, and denied that Smith had shot at him in the past. Williams said that every time Kato or any detective tried to speak to him, he refused and demanded his attorney be called.

The prosecution called detective Warner, whose last name had changed to Sawczenko. She testified that while Kato and Cerone were on the street looking for Smith, Williams told her that he was ready to “tell the truth now.” She said when Kato returned, she accompanied Kato into the interview room where Williams admitted shooting at Smith. Sawczenko admitted that like Kato, she had not taken any notes.

On November 10, 1998, Judge Suria convicted Williams of one count of first-degree murder and three counts of aggravated battery with a firearm. Judge Suria sentenced Williams to 50 years in prison on the murder conviction and three consecutive 10-year terms for the aggravated battery convictions for a total sentence of 80 years. Johnson was convicted of the same charges by the jury and also sentenced to 80 years.

Ultimately, the First District Illinois Appellate Court upheld both men’s convictions but ordered their sentences to be reduced to 60 years.

In 2001, Williams, acting as his own lawyer, filed a petition for post-conviction relief. Ultimately, he was appointed legal counsel, who filed a supplemental petition. It was supported by an April 22, 2005 affidavit from Smith, who had not testified at Williams’s trial.

Smith said he had known Williams for about two or three years. “When the shots were being fired…I could see that neither of the two people shooting weapons looked like [Williams],” the affidavit said.

A separate affidavit from investigator Noel Zupancic detailed an interview with Powell on December 15, 2005 in the Logan Correctional Center where Powell was incarcerated. Powell said that “he was high on heroin and cocaine at the time of the shooting and [his] identification in [Williams’s] case.” Powell said that the police “suggested two guys,” referring to Williams and Johnson. He said that he was then given bus tickets for himself and his son to return to Rockford.

Powell said that he met with prosecutors on three occasions prior to the trial. He said the prosecutor said she “just needed his help with this case and she would give him anything for his help.”

Powell said that on each occasion, he left the prosecutor’s office and went to the victim/witness office where he was given envelopes of cash. He said he did not remember the amounts. He said that he later got locked up on an unrelated case and that “he made a deal” with the prosecutor to testify. He said his testimony identifying Williams and Johnson was a lie.

The petition was dismissed without a hearing. The trial court ruled that Smith’s affidavit would not change the outcome of the case at retrial. It further ruled that Zupancic’s affidavit was hearsay and that Powell’s recantation was “unreliable.”

On March 30, 2012, the First District Illinois Appellate Court reversed the ruling. The court said that Smith’s affidavit contradicted Powell’s trial testimony and the only way to assess Smith’s credibility was at a hearing. “In the case at bar, where there is no physical evidence, and the case is based on the sole identification of a possibly recanting witness and a confession that defendant refused to provide to [the prosecution], and the intended victim [Smith] is now coming forward to say that defendant was not his attacker, defendant is at least entitled to a chance at an evidentiary hearing,” the court ruled.

A hearing was held over four days in 2015. Smith testified in agreement with his affidavit. Powell testified as well. He recanted his trial testimony and said that Williams was not one of the shooters.

William Engerman, Williams’s defense attorney at trial, also testified. By the time he testified, Engerman was a prosecutor in the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office. Engerman said he had no knowledge of the payments to Powell.

Lori Smith, the director of the victim/witness unit, testified that she could not find any records relating to Powell. She said the majority of the files had been destroyed in a fire just before she became director, and shortly after becoming director, the remaining files were destroyed by flooding caused by police who left hoses running after providing water to K-9 Unit dogs. She testified, however, that payments to witnesses were in the range of $4 to $7, essentially money for bus fare or food.

In January 2016, Cook County Circuit Court Judge Joseph Claps denied the petition for a new trial.

Defense attorneys Ronald Safer and Eli Litoff appealed. During the appeal, they presented evidence that Kato had been the subject of multiple allegations of obtaining false confessions through coercion or physical violence. In February 2019, the First District Illinois Appellate Court reversed Williams’s conviction and ordered a new trial.

On June 21, 2019, Williams was released on bond. In 2021, Williams filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city of Chicago, Kato and other officers.

By the time Williams came to trial a second time in August 2023, the city of Chicago had agreed to pay $9 million to settle a lawsuit brought by Patrick Prince, who had been convicted and later exonerated in 2017 following allegations that Kato had physically abused him.

In Prince’s case, he presented a petition citing evidence of complaints by more than 30 people that Kato had beaten and coerced them during interrogations. Some were ultimately not charged, some were acquitted, and some had their convictions overturned by appellate courts. The petition said that Kato had a longstanding “pattern and practice” of misconduct during interrogations. For instance, Kato was accused of beating Carl Chatman, a mentally challenged man who was convicted of raping a courthouse aide in a Chicago courtroom. Chatman was exonerated in 2013. Prince’s lawyers documented numerous cases spanning two decades of similar allegations of physical abuse by Kato, who uniformly insisted that the confessions were voluntary.

The Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office had recused the office from cases involving Kato because he had married Cook County Circuit Court Judge Mary Brosnahan.

At the trial, Kato testified that he did not recall details of the case beyond the files. The defense noted that Kato had made no notes and had not recorded interviews with Williams.

During closing arguments, Safer characterized the case as "extraordinarily flawed.” He said the case relied on an identification by a "proven liar" and a "made-up confession" by Kato, who hadn’t taken notes.

On August 31, 2023, the jury acquitted Williams. Lawyers for Johnson, who remained incarcerated, were still seeking a new trial for him based on allegations of abuse by Kato.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 10/2/2023
Last Updated: 6/1/2024
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Assault
Reported Crime Date:1996
Sentence:80 years
Age at the date of reported crime:17
Contributing Factors:False Confession, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No