John Willis

Prosecutors did not reveal exculpatory blood evidence

John Willis, a 42-year-old tavern custodian and automobile mechanic, was charged with five armed robberies and two rapes that occurred in beauty parlors on the far south side of Chicago in 1989 and 1990.

While Willis was in jail awaiting disposition of the charges, five additional crimes fitting the same distinctive pattern occurred. Undaunted, prosecutors pressed ahead with the cases in which the rapes occurred, contending that the other eight crimes were the work of someone else. In fact, a man named Dennis McGruder had been arrested and charged with several of the other crimes.

At separate jury trials in 1992, Willis was convicted, based on identifications of the rape victims and nine other eyewitnesses, and sentenced to 100 years in prison. What was not disclosed at the time was that prosecutors had received a report, which they did not disclose to the defense, indicating that one of the rapes had been committed by someone with type A blood. Willis was type B. Police serologist Pamela Fish, who conducted the exculpatory testing, testified falsely that the quantity of biological material recovered in the case was too small to test.

In 1997, Willis filed a petition seeking DNA testing under a then-new law entitling him to it. Prosecutors claimed the sample had been lost. It was later found, however, and showed that McGruder, who was then serving a 40-year sentence for other beauty shop robberies, had been the source of the semen, which Fish had claimed was too minute to test. Willis was released from custody on February 24, 1999, and officially exonerated the following March 15. He filed a federal civil rights lawsuit, which was settled for $2.5 million in 2004.

— Rob Warden