Farewell to Dennis Williams

By: Marlene Martin

I was sad to learn of the death of Dennis Williams at the age of 47. Sad and angry -- that Dennis had to die so young and that he didn't get to enjoy very much of his life.

For 18 years, Dennis "lived" on Illinois death row, sent there for a crime he did not commit. He lived to see his friends executed. He lived with racist KKK guards who shackled his wrists every time he left his cell, which wasn't very often. Dennis was locked up for 23 hours a day for 18 years. The pain and stress of this time no doubt contributed to his early death.

The case against Dennis and his co-defendants was full of holes. DNA testing would prove conclusively that none of them could have committed the crime for which they were accused. In 1996, they won their freedom.

That year, the Campaign to End the Death Penalty was just getting off the ground. We contacted Dennis, and he came and spoke at many Campaign events. With his raspy, deep and commanding voice, he would tell his story -- about how the police drove him to the crime scene, held a gun to his head and demanded that he should "confess nigger, or we'll blow your head off." Dennis said that he replied: "This is as good a night to die as any."

He was steadfast in his contempt for the system, and he directed his anger that way. But to speak to Dennis, you could tell right away that he was an easygoing and fun guy who wasn't hardened as a person, despite what he had been through.

I'll never forget all of the things that Dennis taught me. A phone call to him always lasted 45 minutes -- he never had short answers. He would munch away on all kinds of food as we talked, patiently answering all of my probing questions -- while explaining that in prison, he could never eat when he wanted to. He would munch and crunch and talk and talk and tell me everything, willingly and sincerely.

He left his mark on me and many of us. We will hold his memory dear as we continue to fight against the criminal justice system that stole so much of his life from him.