Billy Wardell

Billy Wardell and a codefendant were convicted of a rape they didn't commit based on mistaken eyewitness identifications, corroborated by false forensic testimony

Billy Wardell and codefendant Donald Reynolds, African Americans, were convicted by a Cook County jury in 1988 of abducting and raping two young white women near the University of Chicago campus at gunpoint, taking them to a nearby field, raping one of the women, and attempting to rape the other. The crime occurred at about 10:00 p.m. on May 3, 1986. Three days later, police picked up the victims, who had agreed to help prepare composite sketches of their attackers. On the way to the police station, they happened upon a detective questioning Reynolds, who fit the description of one of the rapists. “That’s him,” one victim declared. “That’s the guy.”

Four weeks later, the other victim tentatively identified Wardell from a photo as one of the other men involved in the attack. Before their joint jury trial in 1988, the men requested DNA testing, but Judge Arthur J. Cieslik denied it. At the trial, in addition to the victims’ identification testimony, police forensic serologist Pamela Fish testified that semen recovered from the rape victim could have come only from 38% of the black male population, including Reynolds. In fact, the semen could have come from 80% of black males. Reynolds and Wardell presented strong alibis, but the jury found both guilty. Cieslik sentenced each to 69 years in prison.

In 1996, four years after the convictions were affirmed on appeal, attorney Kathleen Zellner entered the case and persuaded prosecutors to agree to the DNA testing Ceislik had denied. The results established that neither Reynolds nor Wardell could have been the source of the semen in the case. The convictions were vacated, prosecutors agreed to drop the charges, and the men were freed on November 16, 1997.

— Rob Warden