Verneal Jimerson

Verneal Jimerson (Photo: Loren Santow)

Verneal Jimerson (Photo: Loren Santow)

Police and prosecutorial misconduct put Verneal Jimerson on death row

In what became known as the Ford Heights Four case, Verneal Jimerson and Dennis Williams were sentenced to death for a 1978 double murder they did not commit. Two other innocent men, Willie Rainge and Kenneth Adams, also were convicted in the case and sentenced to prison for terms of life and 75 years, respectively.

In 1983, Rob Warden exposed serious problems with the case, but it took another 14 years to exonerate the innocent men. The exoneration came about as a result of monumental efforts by a legal team that included Mark Ter Molen, of Mayer, Brown and Lawrence C. Marshal. A student investigative team headed by Northwestern University journalism Professor David Protess also was instrumental in the ultimate exoneration of the Ford Heights Four and the convictions of the actual killers.

The miscarriage of justice resulted from coercion of one witness for the prosecution, perjury by another who had a financial incentive to lie, false forensic testimony, and police and prosecutorial misconduct. The story of the Ford Heights Four is told in a book Rob Warden co-authored with Northwestern Professor David Protess — A Promise of Justice, Hyperion (1998). So egregious was the official misconduct that in 1999 Cook County settled lawsuits filed by the Ford Heights Four for $36 million — the largest civil rights payment in U.S. history.

Case Summary (pdf)

Case Data

Jurisdiction: Cook County, Illinois Appellate
Counsel: Mark Ter Molen (Mayer, Brown)
Date of crime: May 11, 1978
Date of arrest: 1985
Convicted of: Murder, armed robbery, kidnapping
Prior adult felony record: None
Trial judge: Will E. Gierach
Lead prosecutor: J. Scott Arthur
Defense counsel (type): Court-appointed
Sentence: Death
Release date: June 24, 1996
Months wrongfully incarcerated: 129
Date of birth: August 24, 1952
Age at time of arrest: 25
Gender: Male
Race: African American
No. of victims: 2
Age(s) of victim(s): Male, 29; female, 23
Gender of victim(s): See above
Race of victim(s): Caucasian
Known factors leading to wrongful conviction: Coerced confession of purported accomplice (Paula Gray), erroneous identification by purported eyewitness (Charles McCraney), police and prosecutorial misconduct; ineffective assistance of counsel
Did an appellate court ever affirm conviction? Yes (direct appeal)
Exonerated by: DNA, confessions of actual perpetrators, pardons based on innocence
Mandated compensation for wrongful imprisonment: Yes — $84,000 from Illinois Court of Claims
Date awarded: July 1997
Months lapsed from exoneration to compensation: 13
Civil damage award: $36 million (shared with three co-defendants)
Defendants in civil action: Cook County
Sheriff's Police, including David Capelli and Howard Vanick, and Cook County
Date awarded: March 5, 1999
Months lapsed exoneration to award: 33