Why Innocent People Land on Death Row

Interview with Investigative Journalist David Protess


By: Kari Lydersen

Dennis Williams and Verneal Jimerson spent 18 years on Illinois' Death Row. For a crime they didn't commit.

And if it weren't for the independent investigative efforts of the prisoners themselves and a handful of lawyers, students and journalists, including Northwestern University investigative journalism professor David Protess, they would likely be dead. Williams, Jimerson, Willie Raines and Kenny Adams - known as the Ford Heights Four - were convicted of the double murder and rape of a white couple at a gas station in the 1970s despite the fact that there was no physical evidence linking the four to the crime. In a tough-on-crime push, politicians were putting pressure on police to put someone behind bars for the murder, so they quickly arrested four black men from the poverty-stricken Ford Heights neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago.

Shortly after the Ford Heights Four's arrest, Chicago police were tipped off to the true killers' identity. But they already had four poor black men in custody, which they considered good enough regardless of the defendants' guilt or innocence. "There's a police attitude toward young black men that if they didn't do this they probably did something else," Protess said.

The tip indicating the real killers was buried in a police file until it was uncovered by Protess and three of his undergraduate students in 1995.

This led to new DNA testing for the men, which exonerated them. So they were finally released after 18 years in prison and on Death Row, and they still haven't received the paltry $140,000 legally owed to them for their years in hell.

Protess points to the Ford Heights Four case as evidence that the criminal justice system is not self-correcting and that innocent people have and will continue to be executed if they are too poor to afford private counsel, as 90 percent of Death Row inmates are.

"I can't think of a single case where a problem was identified inside the justice system," said Protess, whose book on the Ford Heights Four case, A Promise of Justice, is coming out this summer. "It's always from outside pressure."

Protess said the Ford Heights case and other wrongful-conviction cases he has worked on demonstrate the racist and classist nature of the death penalty.

"Capital punishment discriminates against minorities and protects the lives of white people as more valuable," he said, noting that six of the nine innocent men released from Illinois' Death Row in the past nine years were minorities accused of killing whites. The Ford Heights Four case also illustrates the death penalty's use as a political tool rather than a viable and fair deterrant to crime, Protess said.

"The death penalty makes politicians appear tough on crime," he said. "Instead of dealing with the causes, it deals with individual symptoms. It's a medieval system of dealing with social problems."

While his goal as a journalist is to investigate cases of innocent people on Death Row, Protess is fiercely opposed to the death penalty in all cases. But despite the stepping up of executions throughout the country, he thinks anti-death penalty sentiment is growing.

"There are two currents regarding the death penalty right now in American society," he said. "One is the politicians' playing on people's fear of crime and expediting executions. The other is people seeing the horriffic mistakes made by the justice system, seeing the racism of it and seeing that it's not a deterrent. I think the second current is picking up strength."

As well as working on several cases of likely wrongful convictions, including that of Illinois Death Row inmate Aaron Patterson (see interview on front), Protess is also trying to establish a national network of Innocence Projects similar to the one at the Benjamin Cardoza School of Law in New York to investigate wrongful convictions.

"We need someone to conduct these full-blown investigations because indigent clients aren't getting them through the legal system," he said.

"I'm astonished to see how little preparation and legwork is done for most Death Row defenses. And federal funding is gone at the same time that we're increasingly filling prisons. The problem's getting worse."