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Demonstrating that jurors often prefer to believe eyewitness identifications to staunch alibis provided by disinterested parties, Everett Howell, of Farmington, Illinois, was convicted of an August 20, 1928 bank robbery in spite of the testimony of ten citizens who saw him elsewhere. He was released eight months later when, through a series of events, the actual perpetrators confessed.
On the morning of the robbery, just as he was opening the Exchange State Bank of Golden, cashier Albertus Janssen was confronted by a stranger who walked into the bank, produced a revolver, and ordered Janssen to open the safe. As Janssen was considering his options, another man entered the bank and closed the front door. Realizing that he had little choice, Janssen unlocked the safe, the two men stuffed bank notes into a black bag they were carrying, later determined to be $4,305, bound and gagged Janssen, and locked him in the safe.
As the bandits were fleeing the bank, a customer, James Garrison, entered and was forced, at gunpoint, to join Janssen in the vault. It is unclear how the burglar alarm sounded, but authorities quickly gathered and followed the speeding getaway Whippet sedan until the trail was lost at the end of a hidden lane near a farm, which had been occupied by John Barnhill, a local farmer. Scattered about the area were bits of paper with pencil markings which, when fit together, presented a blueprint of the plundered bank and, on the reverse side, an advertisement for John Barnhill’s horse sale. Barnhill was soon arrested. With the added evidence of a match between his handwriting and the pencil markings on the pieces of paper, and the testimony of an employee who remembered seeing him recently take his horse sale ad off the bank wall and make notes while examining the bank’s layout, it was clear that he had at least master-minded the crime.
A number of people, both inside and outside the bank, had viewed the culprits, and their descriptions led to the arrest of Everett Howell in Peoria two weeks later. A Grand Jury returned an indictment within the month and in October 1928, a trial was held in the Adams County Circuit Court before Judge Fred G. Wolfe. Neither Howell nor Barnhill took the stand. Although a number of people testified that Howell was in other parts of the state at the time of the robbery, the positive identification of those who had seen the robbers (with the exception of customer Garrison, whose determination wavered) convinced the jury that Howell was guilty. Barnhill was also convicted, and, on October 17, 1928, both men were sentenced to one year to life in the state penitentiary.
Fortunately for Howell, during the appeal process Barnhill confessed his part in the robbery as well as that of Gilbert Ammerman and Peter McDonald, two men he had met in Chicago and whom he had persuaded to commit the burglary at the Exchange State Bank. Howell, he said, had nothing to do with it. Ammerman and McDonald were arrested and pleaded guilty before Judge Wolfe on July 23, 1929, nearly one year after the robbery. Ammerman was sentenced to one year to life and McDonald, because he was only 19 years old, was sent to the state reform school. Barnhill’s conviction was affirmed on appeal, but, on December 11, 1929, Attorney General Oscar E. Carlstrom appeared in court to confess error as to Howell and the case was remanded to the Adams County Circuit Court “for such other and further proceedings as to law and justice shall appertain.”
On January 25, 1930, Judge Wolfe ordered a new trial and the State’s Attorney dropped the charges. Everett Howell was a free man.
– Researched by Dolores Kennedy
The National Registry of Exonerations is a project of the Newkirk Center for Science & Society at University of California Irvine, the University of Michigan Law School and Michigan State University College of Law. It was founded in 2012 in conjunction with the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law. The Registry provides detailed information about every known exoneration in the United States since 1989—cases in which a person was wrongly convicted of a crime and later cleared of all the charges based on new evidence of innocence. The Registry also maintains a more limited database of known exonerations prior to 1989.
We welcome new information from any source about exonerations already on our list and about cases not in the Registry that might be exonerations.