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Convicted in 1912 in Pulaski County, Illinois, of an attempted rape, and sentenced to 99 years in prison, Evans had a solid alibi that he did not reveal until after he was convicted: At the time of the alleged rape attempt, he had been in neighboring Alexander County committing another crime—a less serious one, but one for which he nonetheless would face prison time.
Both crimes—the one he committed and the one he did not—occurred on December 23, 1911. Laura Johnson, a black woman in her thirties, reported that she had been attacked at about 7:00 p.m. by a light-skinned black man as she walked along railroad tracks near the Pulaski County town of Grand Chain. Only 15 minutes later, 25 miles away in Cairo, in Alexander County, two black men broke into an Illinois Central railcar in an attempt to steal meat. The latter crime was interrupted by Cairo Police Chief Martin S. Egan, who recognized the culprits as Will Evans and Oscar Evans. Egan captured Oscar, but Will escaped, apparently making his way on foot to Mound City in Pulaski County where he was arrested the day after Christmas by a deputy sheriff.
In the county jail at Mound City, the 27-year-old Will Evans was confronted by Johnson, who could not identify him by his appearance, but said his voice sounded like that of the man who had tried to rape her. Six other witnesses viewed Evans at the jail and claimed to have seen him in the area around the time of the crime.
Hoping to avoid being linked to the Cairo crime, Evans gave Pulaski County authorities a phony name—Sam White. Under that name, he was indicted and brought to trial before an all-white jury on January 19, 1912. In the three weeks since Johnson had first seen Evans in jail, her identification became more solid. On the stand, she said she had recognized him the moment she saw him. Evans took the stand to deny the crime, but the jury did not believe him and, after deliberating just minutes, returned a verdict of guilty. Judge Webster W. Duncan immediately passed sentence—99 years.
Immediately after sentencing, Evans told his court-appointed lawyer, George E. Martin, about the Cairo crime. Martin contacted Cairo Police Chief Egan, who arrived at Mound City on January 23 and confirmed that Evans was the second man involved, exactly a month earlier, in the railcar break-in. Based on Egan’s sworn statement, Martin asked Judge Duncan to set aside Evans’s conviction, but the judge said it was too late to bring forth exculpatory evidence. The conviction stood, and Evans was taken to the Southern Illinois Penitentiary at Menard where he would languish for the next two decades.
Two years after the conviction, Martin filed a clemency petition for Evans, supported by affidavits from Evans and 11 other witnesses attesting that Evans had been in Cairo and therefore could not have committed the attempted rape. Judge Duncan responded with a letter defending the conviction. The letter said that, although Egan and the other alibi witnesses no doubt were telling the truth, Evans was “probably in prison rightfully, but upon the wrong charge.” Johnson, the victim, wrote a letter opposing Evans’s release.
In 1916, after a negative recommendation from the Board of Pardons, Governor Edward F. Dunn denied Evans’ plea for a pardon. Nine years later, Evans again sought a pardon, but that application was denied by Governor Lennington Small. Finally, on April 23, 1932—7,423 days after Evans’s arrest—Governor Louis L. Emmerson granted the pardon, acknowledging that Evans “had been the victim of mistaken identity.”
- Rob Warden
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.