This story was co-published in the Chicago Sun-Times.
In 2004, when Cook County Circuit Judge Kenneth J. Wadas sentenced Benard McKinley to 100 years in prison for a murder committed at age 16, McKinley knew what it meant.
“I felt as if Wadas had sentenced me to die in prison,” McKinley, now 35, says from Stateville Correctional Center. “I felt like my life was over.”
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A federal appellate court reversed McKinley’s sentence in 2016, finding that Wadas had failed to take McKinley’s age into consideration when sentencing him to a century behind bars with no possibility of early release.
“He said nothing to indicate that he thought the defendant’s youth at all relevant to the sentence,” Judge Richard Posner wrote for the majority in the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals’ 2-1 decision. Posner said the 100-year sentence was a “de facto life sentence,” which required Wadas, under a prior U.S. Supreme Court ruling, to consider that “children are different.”
It’s rare for a federal court to overturn a criminal sentence imposed by a state court judge.
But, in the past six years, Wadas has been reversed 25 times by the Illinois Appellate Court, nearly twice as often as the combined total of the other five criminal judges running for retention this year, an Injustice Watch investigation found.
Appeals courts found that Wadas frequently disregarded a law that prevents excessive sentencing and incorrectly dismissed prisoners’ claims of errors during their trials.
Wadas declined to comment.
“That’s just an astounding number,” says Northwestern University law professor Susan Provenzano, an expert on appellate advocacy. “There are systemic problems with either his legal analysis or his ability to assess facts or make decisions.”
As an assistant state’s attorney in the 1980s, Wadas was rebuked by the Illinois Appellate Court, which found he engaged in tactics it called “an insult to the court and to the dignity of the trial bar.”
He was involved in multiple cases in which prosecutorial misconduct led to appellate reversals, records show. And the appellate court specifically suggested he should be brought before the board that hears cases of attorney misconduct. But Wadas never faced discipline for his actions, was promoted by then-State’s Attorney Richard M. Daley and, when he later ran for judge, found by the bar associations that rate judicial candidates to be qualified for the bench.
Since Wadas last won retention in 2014, the appeals court has reversed him for issuing excessive sentences, often involving a violation of Illinois’s “one act, one crime” doctrine. That rule prohibits multiple convictions “that are based upon precisely the same single physical act” and requires that lesser convictions for the same act be tossed out.
Wadas has been reversed based on a violation of the “one act, one crime” rule 10 times in the past six years, Injustice Watch found.
Gregory Reed was found guilty of 14 separate charges for firing several shots at a group outside a Chicago nightclub in 2011, wounding one person. Wadas sentenced him to 15 to 50 years for each charge.
Reed appealed. An appellate panel found that Wadas violated the “one act, one crime” rule, ordered all but four of Reed’s convictions vacated and called for a hearing about his attorney’s effectiveness.
Criminal defense and civil rights attorney Jennifer Bonjean says the rule Wadas was found to have ignored isn’t hard to understand.
“If you’re constantly getting reversed on that, either you’re a dummy, or you just don’t care,” Bonjean says.
Tossing out a lesser conviction for the same crime might not dramatically change a prisoner’s situation. Reed, for example, is still serving a 50-year sentence on the remaining charge. Sentences for separate charges often run concurrently. But if the error is left uncorrected, it leaves multiple felonies on a convicted person’s record when there should only be one, and that can take years to correct on appeal, Bonjean says.
In 2014, Jerome Weathers sought to challenge his murder conviction, arguing that two detectives, James O’Brien and John Halloran, had violently coerced his confession. Wadas dismissed Weathers’ request, ruling that it did not pass a legal test for whether his case should proceed.
The following year, an appellate panel reversed Wadas’ decision in that case. It was one of four times since 2014 that a higher court has found Wadas improperly dismissed a postconviction petition.
The appeals court ruled that new evidence from a 2012 Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission report detailing 76 allegations against the detectives, who had worked under disgraced former Cmdr. Jon Burge, merited giving Weathers a new hearing.
Weathers’ petition “clearly alleged that his confession was physically coerced by Detectives O’Brien and Halloran and that newly discovered evidence corroborated his claims,” Appellate Justice Margaret McBride wrote.
In 2013, Martell Boswell pleaded guilty to aggravated vehicular hijacking and agreed to a 22-year sentence, which Wadas told him was the minimum mandatory sentence. The judge was wrong: The minimum was 21 years.
When Boswell sought a resentencing, Wadas denied it. An appellate panel reversed him, finding that Boswell had met “the very low standard necessary to survive first-stage dismissal.”
In 1989, Anthony Mitros pled guilty to murder and burglary charges and was sentenced to life in prison. When he pointed out in a 2011 postconviction petition that such a harsh sentence wasn’t allowed under sentencing guidelines, Wadas dismissed his motion.
The appellate court disagreed, ordering Wadas to issue a new sentence — within the appropriate guidelines of 20 to 60 years.
“A court lacks the authority to impose a sentence that does not conform with statutory guidelines,” Justice Nathaniel Howse said in the court’s opinion.
When Benard McKinley’s case came back before Wadas for resentencing in 2019, McKinley says he thought Wadas wasn’t happy about being reversed.
“He made sure we all knew it was a 2-1 decision that sent me back in front of him,” McKinley says.
By that time, a new Illinois Supreme Court decision had set a standard that anything more than 40 years for a juvenile was the equivalent of a life sentence.
Even though McKinley was a juvenile at the time of the killing, Wadas said during resentencing, “The gun made him older.”
And he resentenced McKinley to 39 years in prison — less than the 40 years and a day that the Supreme Court said would amount to a life term.
Olivia Louthen and Annabelle Rice contributed reporting.