Donald Reynolds and Billy Wardell were convicted of a rape they didn't commit
based on mistaken eyewitness identifications, corroborated by false forensic testimony
Donald Reynolds and Billy Wardell were convicted by a jury and sentenced to 69 years in prison for the rape of one University of Chicago student and attempted rape of another in 1986. The convictions rested on mistaken identifications of the African American defendants by the white victims and on deceptive forensic testimony by Chicago police forensic serologist Pamela Fish.
The victims told police they were walking near their dormitory on the campus shortly after 10 p.m. on May 3, 1986, when they were approached by three men, at least one of whom had a gun. The men shoved the victims to their knees, robbed one of them of $6, took them to a nearby vacant lot, and raped one of them; they attempted to rape the other victim, but did not succeed.
When the men left, the women climbed a fence and summoned help on a university security phone. Police took them to a hospital, where they were treated and Vitullo rape-evidence kits were prepared. Both victims provided descriptions of their assailants. One said she had dug her fingernails into one of the attackers, drawing blood. Scrapings from her fingernails were put into the Vitullo kit, and small quantities of blood later recovered at the crime scene were turned over to the police for forensic testing.
Three days after the crime, police picked up the victims at their dormitory to take them to the police station, where a sketch artist was waiting to prepare a composite sketch of the rapists. En route, the officers and victims happened to come upon a detective questioning a man — Donald Reynolds — who had been stopped because he fit the description of one of the rapists. "That's him," one victim declared. "That's the guy."
Reynolds was charged shortly thereafter. It was not until nearly a month later, however, that Wardell was charged after the other victim tentatively identified him from an array of photographs as one of the other two men involved. "This could be one of the guys," said this victim. However, four days later, at a physical lineup, she positively identified him. "That is the man," she said, "yes, that is the man."
Shortly before their 1988 trial before Cook County Circuit Court Judge Arthur J. Cieslik — no one was charged as the third man involved in the crime — Reynolds and Wardell filed a motion requesting DNA testing. Judge Cieslik denied the motion. "I do not believe that there is enough information available to either substantiate the validity [or] probative value of this test," he said.
At the trial, in addition to the victims' testimony, Pamela Fish testified falsely that semen recovered from one victim could have come only from 38% of the male population, including Donald Reynolds, when in fact 80% of black males could have been the source. Also, Fish did not disclose to the jury that another Chicago Police crime lab analyst, Maria Pulling, had examined hairs recovered from Reynolds and concluded that they could not have come from either victim.
After the jury convicted both men, Cieslik told Reynolds and Wardell, "You weren't satisfied with [robbing the victims]. You were going to have some more fun with some white girls." With that, the judge proceeded to sentence each man to an extended prison term totaling 69 years.
The Illinois Appellate Court affirmed the convictions in 1992, saying that Cieslik's denial of DNA testing was within his discretion, but remanded the case for resentencing on the ground that the judge's reference to "more fun with white girls" was racist and might have impermissibly influenced the severity of the sentence. On remand, the prison terms were then cut to 55 years each.
That is where the case stood in 1996 when attorneys Kathleen Zellner and David Gleicher entered the case, on behalf of Wardell and Reynolds, respectively. Zellner and Gleicher persuaded the Cook County State's Attorney's Office to voluntarily agree to DNA testing, as it had done previously in the cases of Steven Linscott and the Ford Heights Four.
In August 1997, DNA results established that neither Reynolds nor Wardell could have been the source of the semen recovered from the victim who had been raped. Nonetheless, at a hearing on September 4 in the Reynolds case before Judge Daniel J. Kelley, Assistant Cook County State's Attorney Joseph Nigro opposed overturning the convictions, arguing that the eyewitness identification testimony deserved more weight than the scientific evidence.
Six weeks later, on November 16, 1997, however, Assistant State's Attorney Thomas Gainer conceded that Reynolds and Wardell were innocent, whereupon Judge Kelley vacated both convictions. After 11 years behind bars for a crime they did not commit, and three months after the incontrovertible evidence of their innocence became known, the system begrudgingly set the men free.