Life on the line: Prisoner seeks to prove wrongly convicted of Chicago murder

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Carl Williams, then 17, sat in the police station at 51st Street and Wentworth Avenue in January 1994, and recited for a Cook County prosecutor and Chicago police detective a tale of what happened two nights earlier:

Williams stood lookout as companions hijacked a Chevy Blazer as it was stopped at a South Side Chicago gas station, he said, with a man and a woman inside it. Williams and two other members of the group followed the Blazer in a second vehicle to a parking lot, where Williams said he saw one of his companions raped the woman. He left, he told authorities, but later learned that the woman and man had both been murdered.

But Williams soon recanted, and said the confession had been coerced by a detective during more than 12 hours in custody in which he had been beaten and threatened.

He was convicted nonetheless based largely on the confession, and sentenced to spend life in prison with no hope of parole.

He has remained there even as the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled such sentences are illegal for prisoners who committed crimes as juveniles, if imposed without considering their youth. He has remained there even as the codefendants arrested and convicted for the same crime have given statements that Williams was not part of the group that night, and had nothing to do with the horrific incident.

He has remained there even as the Illinois Appellate Court ordered a new hearing in 2012, ruling that the statements gathered on Williams’ behalf amounted to a “substantial” showing that Williams is innocent, and that the evidence, had it been presented at trial, “probably would have changed the result” of his trial.

His day in court finally is coming.

The hearing ordered by the appeals court more than five and a half years ago is at last expected to occur in the coming months.

That hearing, and possibly a parallel internal review by the state’s attorney, should provide more evidence on whether Williams was wrongfully convicted. Neither is likely to explain why it took so long for his case to get a second look.

Illustration by Abby Blachman

Carl Williams

Now 41 years old, Williams has spent most of his life behind bars. He has lost cousins, uncles, aunts. One of his sons has died.

“For this to continue to drag on as long as it has, it sometimes affects you, puts a damper on your spirit, takes you to a place of sometimes feeling hopeless,” Williams said in a telephone interview. “With one swipe of the pen, within 24 to 72 hours, you could easily have me in a prison cell, but it takes you 24 to 25 years of investigating to prove my innocence.”

A double murder

Felicia Lewis, 20, and Reginald Wilson, 23, were finishing up a night with friends when they were killed.

Wilson had been a star basketball player during his time at Illinois State University. Though his basketball career had been ended abruptly by a broken leg his senior year, he played in the Chicago Transit Authority basketball league as a CTA employee. Lewis, who days earlier had learned she passed the Illinois licensing board examination to practice as a nurse, had gone with other friends to watch Wilson play basketball earlier that night.

About 2 a.m. on the morning of Jan. 13, 1994, the two, along with a friend, pulled into a gas station at 79th and State Streets. The friend had gotten out of Wilson’s Blazer when a group of young men appeared, forced their way into the vehicle, and drove off with Wilson and Lewis still inside.

The next morning police in suburban Sauk Village apprehended Scott Chambers, 17, and Stanley Hamelin, 20, driving the Blazer. Hours later, the frozen bodies of Lewis and Wilson were found in a dumpster, the victims of multiple gunshots.

Though their statements to police had some differences, both Chambers and Hamelin said they had been part of a group of five young men who hijacked Wilson’s Blazer brandishing a gun. They said that one or two of the other men had raped Lewis and that she and Wilson were forced to climb into the dumpster and then shot and killed.

The pair told police that the other offenders were Arthur Brown, someone named “Bay,” and someone named “Carl,” whose last name they did not know.

Hamelin took police to Brown’s home, and police spotted Brown driving a car with four other men in it; all were taken down to the station and questioned. One of the men, Zarice Johnson, who went by the name “Bay,” was arrested, as was Brown.

According to police, another occupant of the car, a teenager who told police his name was Larry McGee, said that he knew “Carl,” but did not know whether Carl had anything to do with the murders. McGee led them to a house where, he said, Carl often stayed.

An arrest, then allegations of abuse

Courtesy of Taliah Carter

Williams’s eighth grade graduation photo

Carl Williams was lying half-asleep at his friend’s house, watching a music video, when detective Stanley Turner and two other officers in plain clothes sped up the stairs and into the bedroom.

William testified at a 1996 pretrial hearing that Turner, who died in 2017, “snatched me out of bed and threw me on the floor,” then put a gun to Williams’s chest and demanded information about the homicide.

Williams contends that when he insisted he knew nothing about a homicide, the detective struck him.

“I start crying, telling the officer I didn’t do nothing,” Williams said.

Stanley Turner, the arresting officer of Carl Williams, was connected to a series of other cases involving allegations of misconduct. Turner, who died in 2017, denied misconduct in each. Several cases involved accusations of improper tactics to win confessions:

Groundskeeper confessed, but since exonerated

Nevest Coleman, a White Sox groundskeeper, confessed to a 1994 rape and murder and spent 23 years in prison before DNA evidence implicated a serial rapist in the crime. Coleman was exonerated and has filed a pending lawsuit alleging eight detectives, including Stanley Turner, coerced his confession.

“Indefensible” conduct blocks lawyer from client

Attorney James O’Malley testified that he showed up at the police station as a client was being questioned in 1997 about the high-profile beating of African American teenager Lenard Clark. O’Malley testified that Turner kept him from seeing his client. Later, Turner testified that O’Malley did not show up at the station that day. As it upheld the client’s statement to police, a panel of the Illinois Appellate Court later called “indefensible” the police “interference with an attorney’s efforts to see his client.”

Conduct in questioning teen criticized

Darnell Bridges was convicted of aggravated battery with a firearm, in connection with the accidental shooting of an off-duty policeman during a gang dispute in 1998. The police took Bridges, then 17, into custody, and he gave a custodial statement to police while his parents tried without success to persuade Turner to let them see their son. As it rejected Bridges’ post-conviction claim that the confession was not given voluntarily, a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals wrote it that it was “disturbed” with the police tactics, saying their technique “gives us pause” and should be reconsidered.

A teen moves from “witness” to “suspect”

Johnny Plummer, then 15, first was taken into custody in 1991 by a member of the now-disgraced detective squad headed by former Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge as a potential witness to a homicide. While Plummer, whose moniker was “Smokey,” was at the police station, detective Turner would contend he received information from a confidential informant that someone named “Smokey” had committed a second, unrelated murder, and questioned Plummer about his nickname and neighborhood. Plummer ultimately gave statements to detectives about both murders, implicating himself in one, in which he was convicted. He has since sought to overturn the conviction contending he was tortured by those who questioned him, including members of Burge’s squad, allegations that remain pending.

At the pretrial hearing, Williams testified that at the police station, where he spent most of the day handcuffed to a wall between multiple rounds of questioning, Turner “grabbed me, threw me on to the floor again, put his knee in my back and my spine, grabbed me by my neck and was holding my neck where I can’t move side to side and asking me — and telling me when the state’s attorney come in tell him exactly what happened.”

Williams contends the coercion caused him to offer authorities the fictional story that they wanted to hear. In truth, he contends, he knew nothing about the incident.

Earlier, police had shown Hamelin, Chambers, and Johnson a photograph of Williams and brought Williams to some of their interrogation rooms. They confirmed he was the “Carl” who took part in the crime.

Turner took Williams to see assistant state’s attorney Nicholas Grapsas. Before long, Williams confessed to Grapsas with Turner present. Williams signed a statement prepared by Grapsas at 11:15 p.m., more than 12 hours after he had been arrested.

At the pretrial hearing, Detective Turner, a 23-year veteran of the force at the time he arrested Williams, took the stand and denied Williams’s claims of abuse. He said Williams had voluntarily given the statement to Grapsas at the station. Turner testified that he neither punched, beat, kneed, nor kicked Williams. He testified no other officer did so in his presence, and Williams had never complained to him of such abuse.

Grapsas said Williams told him that police had not mistreated him.

Cook County Circuit Court Judge Vincent Gaughan rejected Williams’ claim and ruled the confession had been voluntary and could be introduced at trial.

Confession the key

The confession was the only evidence the jury heard that directly connected Williams to the double murder and rape; the statements by Hamelin, Chambers, and Johnson, as codefendants, were not admissible at trial.

Turner took the stand and testified that Williams initially said that he knew nothing about the incident. Williams was mostly left alone for hours, Turner testified. Williams told Turner about noon that he did not wish to talk “right now.” About 5:00 p.m., Turner was back in a room with Williams when Assistant State’s Attorney Grapsas came in, introduced himself, and advised Williams again of his rights, Turner testified.

Turner said that Grapsas asked Williams if he wished to speak to him and “Carl Williams agreed to give his side of what occurred, his knowledge of the incident” and then confessed.

Grapsas also took the stand and read Williams’s statement as the prosecutor recorded it.

In closing arguments, Cook County Assistant Public Defender Stephen Richards acknowledged to the jury that the case was “ugly, terrible in every respect.” But the defense contended that an innocent man had been swept into the police effort to solve a high-profile case.

Richards also argued to the jury that the man who identified himself as McGee and directed police to Williams was likely the true fifth perpetrator. It turned out that “McGee” had given authorities a fake name and was nowhere to be seen, leaving Richards to ask the jury why McGee was not in the courtroom.

The trial prosecutor was Anita Alvarez, who would go on to be the Cook County State’s Attorney. “Who cares where Larry McGee is?” Alvarez asked the jury. “Who cares? Ladies and gentlemen, the guy who is Carl is right here.”

The jury convicted Williams.

An Illinois Appellate Court panel considered and turned away Williams’s direct appeal of his conviction in 1999. The opinion states that Williams’s “voluntary incriminating statements were lawfully obtained at the police station during interrogation.”

The fight to clear his name

Courtesy of Taliah Carter

Williams speaks at an event in prison

From prison, Williams went to work building a case for his innocence on his own, without access to an investigator and largely without legal help.

He tried to get in touch with his codefendants repeatedly over the course of years to ask them to attest to his innocence, sometimes losing track of where they were, only sometimes able to make contact.

Williams filed a post-conviction petition that largely restated his direct appeal, which Gaughan denied.

In 2003, Williams obtained affidavits from two of his codefendants, Chambers and Hamelin, saying they did not know him and had been pressured by police to falsely identify him as the fifth perpetrator. He filed a second post-conviction petition citing the affidavits as evidence of his innocence.

Gaughan again rejected the petition, and the appellate courts agreed that given Williams’s confession, the affidavits were unlikely to have changed the outcome.

Attorney Michael Sklar agreed to represent Williams pro bono, and gathered new affidavits from Hamelin, Chambers, Johnson, and Williams, as well as Williams’s trial attorney and the man who had called himself McGee. Armed with the affidavits, Sklar filed a third post-conviction petition that contended Williams had been hampered in his ability to gather the evidence from behind bars to establish his innocence. Brown, who still maintains his innocence, was the only codefendant not to give an affidavit.

Hamelin, Chambers, and Johnson all said they repeatedly told the police that Williams was the wrong man. They said police pressured and threatened them until they changed their stories and identified Williams as the “Carl” whom Hamelin and Chambers had mentioned.

Further, the three said the physical description of the fifth perpetrator that they gave police did not match Williams: They described Carl the suspect as being 6 feet tall and slim, with long hair. At the time of his arrest, Williams was 5 feet 9 inches tall, with a stocky frame and short hair. Williams’s trial attorney said the state had never revealed descriptions that did not match Williams, or that the codefendants had said Williams was the wrong man.

“McGee,” the man who led police to Williams, said in an affidavit that he only led police to Williams because police threatened to charge him with the crime they were investigating if he did not lead them to “Carl.” Afraid, he led them to the only “Carl” he knew.

A legal yo-yo

Gaughan issued a 10-page order denying the third post-conviction petition without an evidentiary hearing, calling it “frivolous and patently without merit.”

Williams appealed, and in 2009, a three-judge panel of the Illinois Appellate Court disagreed. The panel reversed Gaughan, writing that given the seriousness of the offenses and affidavits contending that Williams is innocent, “fundamental fairness requires that defendant’s postconviction claims receive full consideration on their merits.”

Back the case went to the Cook County Circuit Court. Sklar filed a motion asking that the case be reassigned to another judge, contending that Gaughan could not be fair to his client. In 2010, Supervising Criminal Court Judge Evelyn Clay agreed, and the case was reassigned to Circuit Court Judge Angela Petrone.

Before a hearing could take place, the State’s Attorney’s Office filed a motion to dismiss the case, contending that Williams’s claim of innocence was not raised in a timely manner.

Petrone agreed, and added that she found the codefendants’ affidavits contradictory, writing an order that concluded: “The evidence is not newly discovered, nor of such conclusive character that it would probably change the result on retrial. There has been no showing of a violation of petitioner’s constitutional rights.”

Petrone also denied without a hearing a separate petition by Williams challenging the constitutionality of his sentence of life without the possibility of parole, saying that petition, too, was “frivolous and without merit.” She assessed fees for the filing of a frivolous appeal.

The Illinois Appellate Court took up Williams’s case again, and also took up the issue of the sentence. In 2012 an appellate panel reversed Petrone on both issues. Williams, the appellate court said, “has made a substantial showing of a freestanding claim of actual innocence such that he is entitled to an evidentiary hearing on his allegations” of innocence. And if Williams were denied a new trial after that hearing, at the least Williams deserved a new sentence. Based on the 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Miller v. Alabama, the appellate court ruled that Williams’s sentence amounted to cruel and unusual punishment.

Not so fast

Back the case went to Petrone, who did not immediately tackle Williams’s innocence case, delaying the proceedings until the courts clarified whether the sentence was illegal. The U.S. Supreme Court had not clarified whether its decision in Miller — that it is cruel and unusual to sentence defendants for homicides committed as juveniles to life without possibility of parole without considering their youth — extended to past sentences.

The Supreme Court ruled in 2016 that the ruling in Miller applied retroactively to defendants who committed their crimes as juveniles even before the 2012 decision.

The long-awaited hearing on Williams’s post-conviction petition was scheduled for later this month; on August 29, it was indefinitely postponed. In the meantime, Williams’s attorneys are hopeful that the conviction integrity unit within the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office might conclude the conviction should be overturned.

Williams remains optimistic that one way or another, authorities will find that he was wrongly convicted. “It was one thing that I’ve always asked for, to take an honest true look at the evidence — not necessarily just take my word, but follow the evidence and do the right thing,” Williams said.