Darby Tillis

Darby Tillis (Photo: Loren Santow)

Darby Tillis (Photo: Loren Santow)

The real killer's girlfriend put Darby Tillis on death row

Darby Tillis and Perry Cobb 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 Tillis and Cobb. 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 Tillis and Cobb'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 Tillis and Cobb in 1987.

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

Case Summary (pdf)