Perry Cobb

Perry Cobb (Photo: Loren Santow)

Perry Cobb (Photo: Loren Santow)

The real killer's girlfriend put Perry Cobb on death row

Perry Cobb and Darby Tillis were wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death for the 1977 murder and armed robbery of the owner and an employee of a hotdog stand on the north side of Chicago.They were arrested three weeks after the crime when a witness, Phyllis Santini, went to the police with a story implicating them. Both men professed their innocence, but police found a watch taken from one of the victims in Cobb's room. Cobb claimed he bought the watch for $10 from Johnny Brown, Santini's boyfriend.

It took three Cook County jury trials for prosecutors to convict Cobb and Tillis. The first two trials ended in hung juries. The third resulted in convictions and death sentences, but the Illinois Supreme Court reversed the case based on judicial error.

After the reversal, Rob Warden published a detailed account of the evidence in Chicago Lawyer, and the article was read by Michael Falconer, a recent graduate of DePaul University College of Law, who happened to know Phyllis Santini. Before enrolling in law school, Falconer took a summer job in a factory, where Santini also worked. One day she confided that she and her boyfriend — Brown — had robbed a restaurant and shot someone.

Upon reading the article, Falconer immediately contacted Cobb and Tillis's defense lawyers. When the case came up for retrial, Falconer was working as an assistant state's attorney in neighboring Lake County. Falconer's critical testimony led to the acquittal of Cobb and Tillis in 1987.

Fourteen years later, as a result of petitions brought by the MacArthur Justice Center and the Center on Wrongful Convictions, Governor George Ryan granted Cobb and Tillis pardons based on actual innocence.

Case Data

Jurisdiction: Cook County, Illinois
Date of crime: November 13, 1977
Date of arrest:
Charge: Double murder in the course of an armed robbery
Sentence: Death
Release date: January 21, 1987
Months wrongfully incarcerated: 111
Date of birth: February 2, 1942
Age at time of arrest: 37
Defendant race: African American
Race of victim(s): Caucasian
Defendant prior felony record: One conviction for aggravated battery
Known factors leading to wrongful conviction: Witness perjury Did an appellate court ever affirm conviction? No
Exonerated by: Acquittal and pardon based on innocence
Compensation for wrongful imprisonment: Approximately $140,000

Case Summary (pdf)