Michael Winston

Michael Winston at Northwestern Law (Photo: Jennifer Linzer)

Michael Winston at Northwestern Law (Photo: Jennifer Linzer)

His brother did the crime, but he did the time

Michael Winston was exonerated and released on July 2, 2012, after serving more than six years behind bars for a murder that his older brother, Robert Winston, admitted that he, not Michael, had committed.

On February 12, 2005, when Michael was 21 and Robert was 28, they were in a filling station convenience store at 103rd Street and Cottage Grove Avenue in Chicago where they got into an altercation with three members of the a street gang known as the Four Corners Hustlers: Victor Parson, 21, Petre Washington, 27, and Lamont Donegan, 21.

Shots were fired, leaving Parson dead.

The next day, a Chicago police detective received an anonymous telephone tip that the Winston brothers had been involved in the shooting. According to police, Washington and Donegan identified Michael Winston from a photo spread, saying that although they hadn’t seen him fire shots, they’d seen him in the store with a pistol. No weapon was recovered, however, and Michael wasn’t arrested.

Shortly thereafter, Michael moved to Las Vegas, following up on a job opportunity.

The investigation was dormant until a year later when it was assigned to a police cold case unit and detectives obtained an arrest warrant for Michael. He was returned to Chicago on March 2, 2006, and held without bond, charged with the murder of Parson and the attempted murder of Washington and Donegan.

After waiving his right to a jury, Michael went on trial before Cook County Circuit Court Judge James M. Schreier on February 7, 2007.

Washington testified that the day before the shooting, he and Donegan had encountered Michael in a hallway at an apartment complex. Washington said he said something derogatory to Michael, who pulled out a knife, but walked away. Both Washington and Donegan testified that the following evening they entered the convenience store and saw Michael. Words were exchanged and Washington then punched Michael in the face. Both said that Michael then pulled out a pistol and they turned and ran. They said they hadn’t seen the actual shooting.

Testifying on his own behalf, Michael presented a different version of the encounter at the apartment complex. He testified that Donegan had pulled a gun on him, demanding his money. Michael said he then pulled a knife and managed to escape.

The next night, Michael continued, he and Robert and two women friends went to the convenience store where he was approached by Washington, who punched him in the face. As he stumbled backward, he said, Donegan and Parson entered the store. Michael began to reach for his knife, but the three men then fled, with Robert following them. He saw Robert shoot, and then saw Parson lying on the ground holding his abdomen. Then, according to Michael, Robert shot Parson again.

As Michael headed home, Robert caught up with him and warned him not to tell anyone what he’d done. Because Robert was a member of the Gangster Disciples street gang and Michael was in jail with Gangster Disciples, Michael testified that he was fearful for his life.

One of the women who was in the store with the Winston brothers, J’Mas Hall testified that while she was still in the store after the shooting, Robert called on her cell phone and told her to keep quiet. She said she lied to police and said she did not know any of the men involved. Hall also testified that after Michael was arrested, Robert admitted to her and a friend that he had shot Parson.

Several other witnesses also testified that Robert had admitted the crime to them. Among these were Robert and Michael’s sister, Patricia Winston; their mother, Raymonde Winston; their 12-year-old nephew, Wacochee Coleman; and Patricia Winston’s boyfriend, Carlos Vincent.

Robert Winston was called to testify and denied both that he’d been at the store the night of the shooting and that he’d ever told anyone that he’d done the shooting.

On March 21, 2007, Judge Schreier found Michael guilty of the murder of Parson, but acquitted him of the attempted murders of Washington and Donegan.

On April 27, 2007, a motion for new trial was filed that included a handwritten statement from Robert in which he confessed to shooting Parson. At a hearing on the motion, Robert testified that he wrote the statement, and was willing to come forward at that point because he never thought it possible that his brother would be convicted of this crime. While admitting the shooting, Robert claimed that he’d acted in self-defense. He claimed that Parson had a gun, although no weapon had been recovered. He also admitted that he’d told his mother, sister, and nephew that he was the gunman.

On August 22, 2007, Judge Schreier denied the motion. He said he did not believe that the shooting appeared to have been self-defense and therefore that he did not find Robert to be a credible witness. Schreier sentenced Michael to 40 years in prison.

On July 14, 2009, the Illinois Court of Appeals reversed the conviction and remanded the case to the Cook County Circuit Court, holding that Schreier should have granted Michael’s motion for new trial. Normally remanded cases go back to the original trial judge, but Schreier had retired, and the case was assigned to Judge Lawrence E. Flood. By now, Michael was represented by Jeffrey Urdangen, of Northwestern Law School's Bluhm Legal Clinic.

Michael again waived his right to a jury, and his bench trial opened on June 21, 2012.

The prosecution called Washington, who was brought in from a federal prison where he was serving a 10-year sentence for a federal gun violation. He declined to affirm his prior testimony, and prosecutors then introduced his testimony from the first trial.

Donegan was brought in from an Illinois prison where he was serving a 27-year term for a 2008 murder. He testified at the re-trial that police threatened to charge him with concealment of a homicide unless he identified Michael as the gunman.

Defense testimony was presented from those witnesses to whom Robert Winston had confessed. This time, Robert invoked his privilege against self-incrimination and declined to testify.

On July 2, 2012 Judge Flood announced his verdict of not guilty of murder and other related charges in the indictment. Michael was released from custody later that day.  Michael was granted a certificate of innocence by Judge Flood on May 14, 2015.