Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

For Wrongful Imprisonment--$36 Million

March 06, 1999|ERIC SLATER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CHICAGO — Four men who spent nearly two decades in prison for a double murder--freed only after a journalism class discovered new evidence--settled a lawsuit with Cook County on Friday for $36 million, the largest police misconduct payout ever, attorneys said.

The agreement comes just a month after another Chicago man was freed after 16 years on death row following an investigation by another group of students taught by Northwestern University professor David Protess.

The revelations of horribly bungled investigations and prosecutions have rocked the state and led Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley and other leaders to call for a moratorium on executions.

In the double-murder case, another woman was slain by one of the real killers while the four innocent men sat in prison. Since Illinois reinstated the death penalty in 1977, 11 people have been put to death and 11 others freed after it was decided they were wrongly convicted.

"If the military was manufacturing parachutes that failed our soldiers 50% [of the time], I think there would be a moratorium," Protess said in an interview Friday.

The four men--Kenny Adams, Willie Rainge, Verneal Jimerson and Dennis Williams, all in their 40s--will each receive between $7 million and $12 million. Williams will get the most money, according to a source close to the case, because his 18 years on death row represent the worst of the misplaced punishments.

"No amount of money can be satisfactory for what has been done to us," Williams said. "If someone asked me 18 years ago, 'Can I buy your life for $100 million, or can I borrow your life for $100 million for 18 years?' I would have said, 'Hell no.' "

Said Adams: "The people that put us behind bars need to be prosecuted."

The four men were in their 20s when they were charged with the murders of Carol Schmal, 23, and her fiance, 29-year-old Lawrence Lionberg.

Early in the morning of May 11, 1978, the couple was abducted from a suburban gas station where Schmal was visiting Lionberg, who worked the night shift there, and driven to an abandoned South Side townhouse. There, Cook County Sheriff's officers testified in court, the four men gang-raped Schmal before shooting her twice in the back of the head. They also shot Lionberg in the head, police said, and left him to die beside a nearby creek.

The next day, the four men were arrested. The men were all eventually convicted. Williams and Jimerson were sentenced to death for the crimes. Adams was sentenced to 75 years, Rainge to life in prison.

For years, though, questions swirled around the prosecution's case, especially the testimony of Paula Gray, who was 17 at the time of the slayings and testified she had held aloft a cigarette lighter to illuminate the room as the four men raped, then executed Schmal and Lionberg.

Williams and Rainge had their convictions overturned by the state Supreme Court in the late 1980s after the court agreed they did not have adequate defense counsel, but both were convicted again during new trials. All four were freed in 1996.

Then, in a 1996 interview with the journalism students, Gray recanted her earlier testimony, on which the convictions were largely made. Authorities, in turn, agreed to conduct DNA tests of semen left on the victim. While awaiting the DNA results, Protess said, the students came across handwritten Sheriff's Department notes detailing an interview with a man who, six days after the killings, identified four other men as the perpetrators.

Those four were never investigated, but the class quickly located one of them, Ira Johnson, who was serving a 74-year sentence for murdering a woman in 1990.

Johnson confessed to the crime, and identified three others as co-conspirators. One of them, Johnson's brother, Dennis Johnson, had died of a drug overdose. The other two, Arthur "Red" Robinson and Juan Rodriguez, were alive. And when the DNA results came back, they pointed to Robinson and cleared the four who had been convicted.

Johnson, Robinson and Rodriguez were tried and convicted, and all are now serving life sentences for the 1978 slayings.

Friday's settlement came as the county was facing a potentially devastating trial, and in the wake of the February release of Anthony Porter, who spent 16 years on death row, until Protess' students helped free him.

"This settlement brings justice," Cook County State's Atty. Richard A. Devine said in a statement. And, he added, it was "cost-effective for Cook County. A settlement of $36 million represents less than half of the $77 million first demanded by attorneys for the plaintiffs."

Larry Marshall, a Northwestern law professor who represents Adams, said he wasn't certain the money brought justice.

"It's important to have something to rebuild their lives with," Marshall said.

"But our hope is it will lead to a newfound recognition that these kinds of cases are capable of going far, far askew. . . . This kind of thing can't go on, and if it does go on, it will be very costly to those who allow it."

Protess, whose book "A Promise of Justice" chronicles the convictions and eventual pardons of the four men, opposes the death penalty, but said that's not why he and his investigative journalism students took on the case in 1996, or the more recent investigation of Porter's conviction.

"I think our profession's mission is to search for the truth," he said. "This doesn't start as a crusade, it starts as a class project. Most of my cases end up with either no conclusion, or with the conclusion that the system worked."

In this case, though, "the system did it wrong."

Times researcher John Beckham in Chicago contributed to this story.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|