Will Evans

Mistaken identification, belated alibi

Convicted in 1912 in Pulaski County, Illinois, of an attempted rape and sentenced to 99 years in prison, Will Evans (a.k.a. Sam White) had a solid alibi that he did not reveal until after he was convicted: At the time of the alleged rape attempt, he had been in neighboring Alexander County committing a another crime—a less serious one, but one for which he nonetheless would face prison time.

Both crimes—the one he committed and the one he did not—occurred on December 23, 1911. Laura Johnson, a black woman in her 30s, reported that she had been attacked at about 7:00 P.M. by a light-skinned black man as she walked along railroad tracks near the Pulaski County town of Grand Chain. Only 15 minutes later, 25 miles away in Cairo, in Alexander County, two black men broke into an Illinois Central railcar in an attempt to steal meat. The latter crime was interrupted by Cairo Police Chief Martin S. Egan, who recognized the culprits as brothers Will and Oscar Evans. Egan captured Oscar, but Will escaped, apparently making his way on foot to Mound City in Pulaski County where he was arrested the day after Christmas by a deputy sheriff.

In the county jail at Mound City, the 27-year-old Evans was confronted by Johnson, who could not identify him by his appearance but said his voice sounded like that of the man who had tried to rape her. Six other witnesses viewed Evans at the jail and claimed to have seen him in the area around the time of the crime.

Hoping to avoid being linked to the Cairo crime, Evans gave Pulaski County authorities a phony name—Sam White. Under that name, he was indicted and brought to trial before an all-white jury on January 19, 1912. In the three weeks since Johnson had first seen Evans in jail, her identification become more firm. On the stand, she said she had recognized him the moment she saw him. Evans took the stand to deny the crime, but the jury did not believe him and, after deliberating just minutes, returned a verdict of guilty. Judge Webster W. Duncan immediately passed sentence—99 years.

Immediately after sentencing, Evans told his court-appointed lawyer, George E. Martin, about the Cairo crime. Martin contacted Cairo Police Chief Egan, who arrived in Mound City on January 23 and confirmed that Evans was the second man involved, exactly a month earlier, in the railcar break-in. Based on Egan's sworn statement, Martin asked Judge Duncan to set aside Evans's conviction, but the judge said it was too late to bring forth exculpatory evidence. The conviction stood, and Evans was taken to the Southern Illinois Penitentiary at Menard where he would languish for the next two decades.

Two years after the conviction, Martin filed a clemency petition for Evans supported by affidavits from Evans and eleven other witnesses attesting that Evans had been in Cairo and therefore could not have committed the attempted rape. Judge Duncan responded with a letter defending the conviction. The letter said that, although Egan and the other alibi witnesses no doubt were telling the truth, Evans was "probably in prison rightfully, but upon the wrong charge." Johnson, the victim, wrote a letter opposing Evans's release.

In 1916, after a negative recommendation from the Board of Pardons, Governor Edward F. Dunn denied Evans's plea for a pardon. Nine years later, Evans again sought a pardon, but that application was denied by Governor Lennington Small. Finally, on April 23, 1932—7,423 days after Evans's arrest—Governor Louis L. Emmerson granted the pardon, acknowledging that he "had been the victim of mistaken identity."

Case Chronology

December 23, 1911 — A light-skinned black man allegedly attempts to rape Laura Johnson, a black woman in her thirties, as she walks along railroad tracks near the town of Grand Chain in Pulaski County, Illinois, at approximately 7:00 p.m. At approximately the same time, a railroad car is being broken into by two black men in the Alexander County town of Cairo, some twenty-five miles from Grand Chain.

December 26, 1911 — Will Evans is arrested by a Pulaski County deputy sheriff and taken to the county jail in Mound City. Unaware of the attempted rape and assuming that he has been arrested for the Cairo crime, Evans gives a false name — Sam White. The victim of the alleged attempted rape identifies Evans by his voice, saying it sounds like that of the man who raped her. Six other witnesses view Evans in jail and claim to have seen him in the vicinity of the crime three days earlier.

January 19, 1912 — Evans is tried, under the name Sam White, before an all-white jury and Pulaski County Circuit Court Judge Webster W. Duncan. The victim positively identifies Evans in court, saying she is now certain he is the man who tried to rape her. Evans takes the stand, denying the crime, but does not mention the Cairo crime. The jury deliberates only minutes before returning a verdict of guilty. Judge Duncan sentences him to ninety-nine years in prison. Evans belatedly reveals his actual identity to his court-appointed lawyer, George E. Martin.

January 23, 1912 — At Martin's behest, Cairo Police Chief Martin S. Egan comes to the Pulaski County jail in Mound City and identifies Evans. Egan tells Martin and, a little later in the day, Judge Duncan that he interrupted a robbery of an Illinois Central railcar at 7:15 p.m. on December 23, 1911, and recognized one of the two men involved as Evans.(The second man involved in the railcar break-in was Evans's brother Oscar, who had been arrested at the time.) Martin asks Judge Duncan to vacate Evans's conviction, but Duncan says it is too late for that.

September 19, 1914 — Judge Duncan writes a letter to the Illinois Board of Pardons saying that Martin will soon file a petition seeking a gubernatorial pardon for Evans. Duncan says he has "great confidence" in Chief Egan's integrity and that Egan's story "has convinced me that the Negro was wrongfully convicted of the crime of assault to rape." The leter concludes that Evans "is probably in the penitentiary rightfully, but upon the wrong charge."

October 7, 1914 — Martin files Evans's petition, which is supported by statements from Egan and eleven other witnesses attesting that Evans had been in Cairo at the time of the attempted rape in Grand Chain.

April 18, 1916 — Governor Edward F. Dunn denies Evans's pardon application based on a negative recommendation from the Board of Pardons.

June 30, 1916 — Alexander County State's Attorney Alexander Wilson writes the Board of Pardons urging reconsideration of Evans's case. The letter declares that "an innocent Negro is serving a life sentence" and concludes, "I have no interest in this nigger but am fair enough to any human being to see that he is guilty before being punished."

April 4, 1924 — Evans files a second petition for a pardon, pro se. (The petition is dated January 21, 1924, but not stamped filed until this date.)

May 7, 1925 — Governor Lennington Small denies Evans's second pardon application based on another negative recommendation from the Board of Pardons.

February 13, 1932 — Evans files a third petition for a pardon, pro se.

April 23, 1932 — Governor Louis Lincoln Emmerson grants Evans a pardon, acknowledging that he "had been the victim of mistaken identity."

Case Data

Crime date: December 23, 1911
Jurisdiction: Pulaski County, Illinois
Crime: Attempted rape
Related crime(s): None
Age: 27
Gender: Male
Race or ethnicity: Black
Arrest date: December 26, 1911
Victim: Laura Johnson
Victim's gender: Female
Victim's race: Black
Victim's age: Early or mid thirties
How defendant became a suspect: Arrested in the area
Principal evidence of defendant's guilt: In-court identification by Laura Johnson
Principal defense: Reasonable doubt, as a result of the questionable identification
Type of trial: Jury (all white)
Conviction date: January 19, 1912
Convicted of: Assault to rape
Sentence: Ninety-nine years
Appellate record: None
Basis for exoneration: Confirmation of alibi by Chief of Police in Cairo, Illinois, who interrupted a railcar burglary Evans committed at the time of the alleged rape near Grand Chain. (Cairo and Grand Chain are twenty-five miles apart.)
Legal form of exoneration: Pardon (April 23, 1932) by Governor Louis Lincoln Emmerson acknowledging that Evans "had been the victim of mistaken identity."
Release date: April 23, 1932
Days of incarceration: 7,432
Prior record: Unknown
Compensation: None

— Rob Warden