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In Memoriam: Dennis Williams

Dennis Williams was freed from his wrongful imprisonment on Illinois’ death row in 1996. In March of 2003, not even 6 years after his exoneration, he died of a brain aneurysm. His story follows.

Dennis Williams spent 18 years in jail, 14 of them on death row, for a crime he did not commit. He spent more time on death row than any other inmate in the United States to walk out of death row alive.

Dennis was born in the Mississippi delta. His family moved to Ford Heights, Chicago when he was young. At the time of his arrest, he had graduated high school and was planning a career in auto mechanics.

In 1978, Dennis was tried and convicted for the double murder of Lawrence Lionberg and Carol Schmal and the rape of Carol Schmal. After the police received an anonymous telephone tip, Dennis was arrested along with his friend Verneal Jimerson. Dennis said that the day of his arrest was unforgettable. One of the officers told him, “you're gonna fry.” Dennis and Verneal, along with their two friends Kenny Adams and Willie Rainge, were charged with the crime after Kenny’s girlfriend, Paula Gray, was coerced by the police to be an eyewitness. Paula is mentally retarded, and the police threatened her with prison if she did not testify against them. They were four young black men, and the victims were white. The media dubbed them the “Ford Heights Four.”

Paula recanted her testimony, and the charges against Verneal were dropped. Kenny, Willie and Dennis were convicted by an all-white Cook County jury on the testimony of a man who claimed to have seen them at the murder scene around the time of the crime. Dennis was sentenced to death, and Kenny and Willie to long prison terms. Paula was also convicted and sentenced to prison for both murder (as an accomplice) and perjury (for recanting her original statement).

Dennis won a new trial due to ineffective assistance of counsel. His attorney was later disbarred. Prosecutors then agreed to release Paula from prison if she would revert to her false testimony that she witnessed the crime. She took the deal. In 1985, based on her testimony, prosecutors not only retried Dennis, but also renewed the original charges against Verneal. At the trial, prosecutors also used testimony from a jailhouse snitch who got favorable treatment for his testimony. Both Dennis and Verneal were convicted and sentenced to death – the result of the coercion of one witness, perjury by another who had a financial incentive to lie, false forensic testimony, and police and prosecutorial misconduct.

In prison, Dennis was in his cell 23 hours a day. He said that although he lost all faith in the legal system, he refused to stop fighting for his freedom. As he put it, “the feeling of sitting on death row for a crime I did not commit is emotionally choking. It's inhuman. It's something that shouldn't be imaginable. The very people who are supposed to uphold the law are the ones who are breaking it.”

In 1996, Northwestern University journalism students working under Professor David Protess followed up on an article written by Rob Warden 14 years earlier and an 18-year-old police file indicating that four other suspects might have committed the crime. One of the suspects was dead, but two others confessed to Protess's students. Those confessions were corroborated by DNA tests showing that none of the four could have raped Carol Schmal. Thanks to this evidence, the “Ford Heights Four” were at last exonerated.

In 1999 Cook County settled lawsuits filed by the Ford Heights Four for $36 million, the largest civil rights payment in U.S. history. Dennis said that he would have returned all that money in a second if he could have had those 18 years of his life back.

When asked if he was angry, Dennis once replied: “If I were to describe my bitterness or anger, I don't think I could give a description to it. But it's here. It exists. If I'd depended on the system to correct itself, I'd have been dead a long time ago. In a way, living so close to the execution chamber was one of the things that gave me determination, that gave me strength. I realized I didn't have to take but a few steps and I'd be behind that door.”

Dennis knew that the one thing that kept him sane was immersing himself in painting. He was inspired by other death row inmates, especially Roger Collins and William Bracy. With their help, he taught himself to paint. Dennis felt that the time he spent painting strengthened him in an environment designed to numb the senses and destroy even the tiniest bit of creativity.

His love of painting helped him cope with life after death row. As he put it: “People always ask me if I’m angry. I just don't think that anger is the answer. I don't think that anger is going to get me anywhere. If anything, it's going to hold me back. I can't think clearly if I'm angry. Instead, I try to focus my energy on creating. When I am painting, I achieve a kind of relaxation approaching a meditative state.”

Dennis was even able to combine his love of painting with his passion for electronics, which he developed before prison. He would make “boomboxes” out of discarded circuit boards, cardboard and acrylic paint. According to Dennis, his boomboxes allowed him to “explore the universe of technology and creativity whose paths are unknown and endless.”

After his release, Dennis worked as a counselor in a youth program on the west side of Chicago, was a part-time student at Governor’s State University, and campaigned for criminal justice reform. But he said that he never felt completely free. He never left his house without calling someone, so that he “would have an alibi”. And he always thought about his life on death row. When speaking about his time on death row, Dennis once said: “I know a lot of guys who were executed. My neighbor was John Wayne Gacy, though I never really got to know him. I was good friends with Girvies Davis and George DelVecchio. Those two were the type of guys that, if you made friends with them, they were your friends.”

On March 20, 2003, Dennis’ fiancee found him slumped dead in their home in Flossmoor, Illinois. He was 46 years old. He had been free from death row for 5 years and 9 months.