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Dennis Williams

Other Chicago Exonerations with Jailhouse Informants
In the early morning hours of May 11, 1978, 28-year-old Lawrence Lionberg and 23-year-old Carol Schmal were abducted from a Clark filling station where Lionberg worked in Homewood, Illinois, a southern suburb of Chicago.

The bodies of the couple, who were engaged to be married, were found the next day in an abandoned townhouse in a public housing project in East Chicago Heights, a suburb later renamed Ford Heights.

Lionberg had been shot once in the back and twice in the back of the head. Schmal had been sexually assaulted and shot twice in the back of the head.

The couple had last been seen around 2:15 a.m. at the station. Schmal had driven Lionberg to the station because his car was not working. It was his first overnight shift, and Schmal stayed to keep him company. A freelance photographer told police that she bought gas about 12:30 a.m. and saw Schmal counting cigarette packages.

The day manager arrived at 6:50 a.m. and found the station ransacked. Police said an inventory showed that $148 in cash and about $250 worth of cigarettes were missing. Schmal’s purse was found in her car parked at the station. It contained a receipt for a wedding ring and roughly $50 in cash.

Lionberg’s body was found in a field off Cannon Lane not far from the abandoned townhouse at 1528 Cannon Lane where Schmal’s body was found on the second floor.

A tip from a man named Charles McCraney, who lived in the housing project near the murder scene, led to the May 14, 1978 arrest of four men—21-year-old Dennis Williams, 20-year-old Kenneth Adams, 20-year-old Willie Rainge, and 25-year-old Verneal Jimerson. In addition, Paula Gray, an intellectually disabled 17-year-old, was brought in for questioning.

On May 16, after being held for two days, Gray signed a written confession and then testified to a Cook County grand jury that she held a disposable cigarette lighter burning while Adams, Rainge, Jimerson, and Williams raped Schmal seven times. She also stated that she saw Williams shoot both victims with a .38-caliber pistol. She said Williams threw the gun into a creek near the scene. However, divers were unable to recover any weapon, even though the creek was dammed up to reveal the creek bottom.

A month later, on June 19, Gray recanted her story at a preliminary hearing in Cook County Circuit Court, claiming that she had been drugged and that the police walked her around the crime scene and told her what to say. Since Jimerson was only implicated by Gray’s recanted testimony, the charges against him were dismissed. However, Gray herself was charged with murder and perjury.

In September 1978, Adams, Rainge, Williams, and Gray went to trial in Cook County Circuit Court. Two juries were selected; one to hear the case against Gray and the other to hear the case against Adams, Rainge, and Williams.

McCraney testified that he was a jazz guitarist and was playing his guitar in his living room at about 3 a.m. He said he looked out a rear second-floor window to check on his Cadillac to make sure it was not being vandalized or stolen. He said there was a blue Chevrolet parked next to a beige Toyota in front of Gray's house. He said Adams and Gray were in the Chevrolet. He said he later saw a red Toyota with the other two cars and a yellow Ford Vega, driven by Rainge, stopped next to the red Toyota. He said he looked again about 15 minutes later. He said he saw the red Toyota drive under a nearby streetlight where Williams got out, broke the streetlight with a rock, and then backed the red Toyota into a parking area. McCraney said he saw Rainge leave the Vega and get into the red Toyota, which was then driven east on Hammond Lane. He said that when he went outside to inspect his car, he saw Gray and an unknown man sitting in the blue Chevrolet.

Later, after returning to his house, he heard the revving of a motor. He again looked out his front window and saw that the red Toyota was stuck in the mud. He said he went to a back window to check on his car and saw four people including Adams get out of the beige Toyota and run toward the building at 1528 Cannon Lane. He said he did not see Gray get out of that car. McCraney said he returned to a front window and saw a group of six to eight people enter the building located at 1528 Cannon Lane, including Williams, Rainge and Adams. He said he later heard a gunshot but did nothing since gunfire was commonplace in that neighborhood.

Several hours later, McCraney said he saw Williams drive up in a red Toyota, stop under the light he previously had broken, and kick the glass from the street. Williams then parked his Toyota in front of Gray's home.

McCraney claimed that after the bodies were found, he heard Williams tell a group of onlookers: “I saw them jump when they got shot.”

“That’s when I put two and two together,” McCraney said. He said that he had been relocated by the state because his cars had been vandalized after he was identified as a prosecution witness.

Michael Podlecki, a forensic scientist for the Illinois Department of Law Enforcement's Bureau of Scientific Services, testified that serological tests run on the vaginal swab showed seminal fluid from a person with type A blood. The tests also indicated the possibility of intercourse with persons having type A blood with a trace of “H substance,” and, possibly, type O blood. Podlecki said this indicated that Schmal had had intercourse with someone who secreted these blood types in their bodily fluids. Williams had type A blood; Adams had type A with a slight trace of “H substance”; Rainge had type O blood. All three secreted their blood types in their bodily fluids.

Podlecki said Schmal also had type O blood, as did Lionberg. He said it was impossible to tell if either of them was a “secretor.” However, if Schmal was, that could explain the positive test for O type blood or for A type with “H substance.” He said that it did not appear, however, that it would account for the positive test for type A blood.

Three hairs were also admitted into evidence. These were taken from Williams’s car, two from the back seat and one from the trunk. Podlecki said the hairs were Caucasian. He said there were no dissimilarities between one of the hairs from the back seat and the one from the trunk and the hair of Schmal. Podlecki said the other hair from the back seat was consistent with the hair of Lionberg. He said that even at the highest magnification, he could not ascertain any dissimilarities between the hair samples.

Podlecki said while he could not say with certainty that the hairs came from the victims, a Royal Canadian Mounted Police study of relatives had found that there was a 1 in 4,500 chance that similar hairs, that is, hairs matching in 99.9 percent of their characteristics, came from different heads. Podlecki testified that it would be less likely that matching hairs would come from different heads among the general population. He refused to speculate about the odds when three similar hairs were found.

The prosecution presented the transcripts of Gray’s testimony before the grand jury as well as her recantation testimony at the preliminary hearing.

David Jackson testified about a conversation between Williams and Rainge that took place on May 15 while in the intake section of the Markham police station jail. Jackson, who had been arrested for burglary, was in the cell with Williams, Rainge, Adams, and Jimerson. Williams and Rainge were talking; the other two sat apart on the other side of the cell. Jackson said that Williams and Rainge each admitted to having had sex the night before and that they “really shouldn't have took it from the lady.”

In addition, Jackson said Williams told Rainge he was “glad he took care of the guy” because “he kept running off with his mouth.” According to Jackson, Williams told Rainge not to worry because “they're gone” and “the piece” would never be found. Williams also said he would have to “get somebody to take care of the lady that seen them in the neighborhood the day they got arrested.”

On cross-examination, Jackson said Adams and Jimerson did not take part in the conversation. He also admitted that he had a grudge against Williams and Rainge because his wife had, some time before, identified them as the two who had stolen a television from her at gunpoint and roughed up his kids.

Williams testified and denied involvement in the crime. He said he got home about 1:30 a.m. after taking Jimerson and his family to Chicago. He said he stopped just before going home, for about five minutes, to talk to Adams and Gray, whom he found in Adams’s car parked in front of Gray’s home. He said he then went straight home and did not get up until about 9 a.m.

Rainge and his girlfriend both testified that they were together at Rainge’s home with other members of his family, who were already in bed, until about 3:30 a.m. He also testified that on May 11 he worked from 9 a.m. until 7 p.m.

Adams’s mother testified that her son was home asleep about 3:15 a.m. and he was still asleep at 7 a.m. when she got up.

Gray testified and said that her statements and testimony to the grand jury were false. She said she had been coerced by the police.

On October 20, 1978, Williams and Rainge were convicted of first-degree murder, aggravated kidnapping, and rape. They were acquitted of armed robbery. Adams was convicted of rape and first-degree murder, the crimes for which he had been charged. Gray was convicted of rape, first-degree murder, and perjury.

Williams was sentenced to death, Rainge to life, Adams to 75 years in prison, and Gray to 50 years in prison.

On appeal, Williams argued that his defense lawyer, Archie Weston, who also represented Rainge and Gray, had provided an inadequate legal defense. Williams cited numerous problems, including that Weston had failed to make a motion to suppress the physical evidence seized from Williams’s car; had failed to object to the testimony concerning the Canadian study on hair comparison; had failed to object to prejudicial material received by Williams’s jury which Williams asserted was designed to ensure that the jurors would know that Gray had accused her codefendants.

The convictions of all four defendants were affirmed on appeal.

However, after the convictions were affirmed, Williams petitioned the Illinois Supreme Court for a rehearing. While that petition was pending, a disciplinary case involving Weston came before the court. In the disciplinary case, Weston had been found by a hearing board to have neglected an estate case he was supposed to handle, resulting in the sale of a home to pay off unpaid taxes, that he commingled funds and, that he committed acts prejudicial to the administration of justice, and that he commingled and converted a client's funds.

As a result of the additional information presented about Weston’s conduct, the Illinois Supreme Court granted Williams’s petition for a rehearing.

In November 1982, the Illinois Supreme Court reversed Williams’s conviction. The court noted that it was aware “for the first time of the unique circumstances under which counsel in this case was operating at the time of the capital trial. In the light of these facts, we can no longer characterize counsel’s decision not to make the motion to suppress the hair evidence or to take other action on his client's behalf as professional misjudgments made with full knowledge of the applicable law and the facts. Moreover, while we do not believe that the burden of defending three clients for capital murder before two juries, standing alone, necessarily reduced counsel's effectiveness, that fact in view of the new information now before us cannot be disregarded.”

Consequently, Rainge was granted a new trial in 1983. Gray had filed a federal petition for a writ of habeas corpus alleging she had not received a fair trial because of Weston’s multiple representation. In 1983, the Seventh Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals had granted her petition, and she was granted a new trial. Adams, who had been represented by a different attorney, was not. Weston was disbarred.

Prosecutors then made a deal with Gray under which she would be released in exchange for testifying against Williams and Rainge at their retrial. As part of the deal, Gray also agreed to testify against Jimerson, who was then charged.

Jimerson went to trial in October 1985 in Cook County Circuit Court. Podlecki again testified that the vaginal swab from the rape kit contained blood types A and O, the victim was type O, Jimerson and Rainge were type O, and Adams and Williams were type A secretors.

He testified that Jimerson could not be excluded as a contributor to the vaginal swab and noted that 47 percent of the population shared blood type O with him. However, this was misleading because the portion of the population that could not be excluded was greater than that: in addition to all men with Type O blood, it also included all men with Type A blood, and all Type B and AB "non-secretors" (men who do not secrete their blood type markers into their semen). Thus, the correct figure should have been closer to 80 percent of the population.

Podlecki also testified that hairs recovered from the back seat of Williams’s red Toyota were "consistent" and "similar" to Lionberg's hair. About the comparison, he testified, "I could not see any differentiation in the characteristics. It was like I was looking at one hair." He also testified that hairs recovered from the rear floorboard and trunk of the car were "similar" to Schmal's hair.

On November 7, 1985, Jimerson was convicted first-degree murder, aggravated kidnapping, and rape. Like Williams, Jimerson was sentenced to death.

In 1986, prior to the retrial for Williams and Rainge, the defense moved to bar Gray from testifying, alleging she was incompetent. In support of the motion, the defense presented the testimony of Dr. Robert Watkins, a family practitioner who had examined Paula on May 19, 1978, eight days after the murders. Dr. Watkins had observed Paula to be anxious, withdrawn, and agitated, but responsive after medication. She had been treated and released.

Three days later, Dr. Watkins had found Gray to be severely agitated and non-communicative. He testified that her behavior was so bizarre that he had admitted her into the hospital where she was administered Thorazine, a major tranquilizer. Gray resumed communicating and was released from the hospital on May 24, 1978. Dr. Watkins described her condition as acute schizophrenic reaction, a mental disorder. Dr. Watkins did not testify as a psychiatric expert. He had not examined Gray again since 1978. The trial court denied the defense motion to bar Gray from testifying.

In February 1987, Williams and Rainge went to trial for a second time. The defense presented testimony from Dr. Paul K. So, a material sciences professor at Illinois Institute of Technology. Dr. So testified to rebut Gray’s testimony about how she held the disposable lighter to provide illumination in the abandoned house while Schmal was raped. Gray said that while she could not say how long she held the lighter alit, she did tell the jury that one of the rapes lasted 30 minutes.

Dr. So testified that he videotaped tests of five disposable lighters using a mechanical device. Only once, he said, did a lighter fuel a flame for more than 30 minutes, but by that time, the top of the lighter had melted. The other lighters only lasted between eight and 12 minutes.

Dr. John Adams of the Illinois State Water Survey testified that he had reviewed surveys of Deer Creek, where Gray said Williams had tossed the gun used in the killings. He said the water flow was three cubic feet per second, about two miles an hour. He said that about a flow of 7.8 cubic feet would be needed to cause an object as heavy as a gun to move along a stream bottom. That suggested, Dr. Adams testified that the gun should have settled on the bottom of the creek where Gray said it was tossed.

On February 13, 1987, Williams and Rainge were convicted of first-degree murder, aggravated kidnapping, and rape. Williams was again sentenced to death. Rainge was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

In February 1989, the Illinois Supreme Court upheld Jimerson’s convictions and death sentence. In March 1991, the First District Illinois Appellate Court upheld Rainge’s convictions and sentence. In October 1991, the Illinois Supreme Court upheld Williams’s convictions and death sentence.

In 1994, David Jackson, the jailhouse informant who had testified against the defendants in their first trial, recanted his testimony in an affidavit prepared by defense investigators. He said he had lied because prosecutors gave him a deal on charges he was facing at the time.

Meanwhile, Jimerson had filed a post-conviction petition that raised several issues, in particular that Gray had testified falsely at his trial when she denied she had been promised anything by the prosecution in return for her testimony. Jimerson contended she had been promised that her murder charge would be dropped.

During her cross-examination, the defense had asked Gray three consecutive questions: “Were you told that you would get out of jail earlier?” “Were you told if you testified that you would get out of jail earlier?” “No promises were made to you by [prosecutor Scott Arthur] at all?”

To each, Gray had replied: “No.”

The defense noted that ultimately the murder and rape charges against Gray had been dismissed, that she had pled guilty to perjury, and had been sentenced to two years of probation. None of that evidence was presented at Jimerson’s trial.

At that point, the Cook County State's Attorney's Office agreed to DNA testing in an attempt to link Jimerson to the crime.

Meanwhile, Northwestern University journalism students working under Professor David Protess found a police file showing that, within a week of the crime, a witness had told the Sheriff's Police they had arrested the wrong men. The witness said he knew who committed the crime because he heard shots, saw four men run away from the scene, and the next day saw them selling items taken from the robbery of the victims. This report had never been turned over to the defense. One of the men identified by the witness was by then dead, but the other three ultimately confessed.

In February 1996, the journalism students tracked down Gray, and she asserted that the truth was she had never seen the crime and she knew nothing about it.

On May 10, 1996, 42-year-old Arthur Robinson told journalists that he had been present at the crime and that Dennis Johnson had been the gunman who killed Schmal and Lionberg. By that time, Johnson was dead of a drug overdose in Minnesota.

According to Robinson, he as well as Johnson and Johnson’s younger brother, Ira, and a fourth man, Juan Rodriguez, had driven to the gas station because Johnson wanted to collect a debt from Lionberg. When Lionberg said he didn’t have the money, Johnson forced Lionberg and Schmal into the car the men were riding, stole merchandise from the station, then drove around for about an hour before ending up at the vacant townhouse.

Robinson said the Johnson brothers raped Schmal. Robinson said after he saw Dennis Johnson shoot Schmal, he ran away and so did not see Lionberg shot.

Ira Johnson, who was serving a 74-year prison sentence for an unrelated murder, then gave an interview to the media implicating his brother, but claiming that he wasn’t present and only learned about it later from his brother. Their accounts, though dissimilar in part, were buttressed by the statement that the journalism students had found from Marvin Simpson, who told police at the time that the real perpetrators were the Johnson brothers, Robinson, and Rodriguez.

The accounts were incorporated into a motion for a new trial filed at that time on behalf of Williams.

On June 7, 1996, attorneys for Williams, Rainge, Adams, and Jimerson received a report of the DNA testing of the vaginal swab from Schmal. All four men were excluded. In addition, Edward Blake, a forensic serologist and DNA expert, found that Williams was actually a non-secretor, contrary to Podlecki's original testimony.

On June 14, 1996, with the agreement of the prosecution, Williams, Rainge, and Adams were released from prison to home confinement. With Jimerson, the four had come to be known as the “Ford Heights Four.” (In 1987, East Chicago Heights had changed its name to Ford Heights as part of its unsuccessful attempt to annex unincorporated land that was destined for construction of a Ford Motor Company stamping plant.)

On June 24, 1996, the prosecution dismissed the case against Jimerson. On July 2, 1996, the prosecution dismissed the charges against Williams, Adams, and Rainge.

Days later, the prosecution announced that DNA tests identified the semen as belonging to Arthur Robinson. Robinson, Ira Johnson, and Rodriguez were charged with the crime. All three had admitted involvement. Ira Johnson and Robinson pled guilty to the murders and were sentenced to life in prison. Rodriguez was convicted, got a new trial, and was reconvicted. He was sentenced to 65 years in prison.

In 1999, Cook County settled lawsuits filed by Williams, Rainge, Adams, and Jimerson for $36 million, at the time the largest civil rights payment in U.S. history. Williams’s share of the settlement was $12.8 million. All four men were granted gubernatorial pardons enabling them to receive state compensation. Williams, Adams, and Rainge also received $140,000 in state compensation. Jimerson received $120,300 in state compensation.

Meanwhile, Gray, represented by attorneys Thomas Decker and Jon Berg, sought to vacate her perjury conviction. In 2001, Cook County Circuit Court Judge William O'Neal vacated the conviction in a 352-page ruling, the longest such ruling in Illinois history.

Judge O'Neal issued a scathing rebuke to police and prosecutors, saying, “The coercion of Ms. Gray to tell their concocted, inculpatory story and subsequent suppression of reliable evidence pointing to the guilt of others was both abhorrent and illegal….Wrong is wrong, be it illegal actions of the street thug or the conduct, as in this matter, by officers of the law and court.”

The prosecution said it would appeal, but that was mooted on November 14, 2002, when Gray received a pardon based on innocence from Illinois Governor George Ryan which allowed her to receive $120,300 in state compensation.

Williams died in 2003. He was 46.

On December 18, 2008, Cook County settled Gray’s civil lawsuit for $4 million.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date:  Before June 2012
Last Updated: 4/8/2023
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Rape, Kidnapping
Reported Crime Date:1978
Age at the date of reported crime:21
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:Yes