Willie Rainge

Willie Rainge (Photo: Mary Hanlon)

Willie Rainge (Photo: Mary Hanlon)

Willie Rainge, one of the Ford Heights Four, was convicted of two murders he did not commit

Willie Raines was twice convicted, first in 1979 and then in 1987, in what became known as the Ford Heights Four case — a misnomer because it involved not four but five wrongful convictions. Rainge and his co-defendants — Kenneth Adams, Verneal Jimerson, Dennis Williams, and Paula Gray — were African Americans falsely accused of abducting a recently engaged young white couple, Lawrence Lionberg and Carol Schmal, in the early morning hours of May 11, 1978, from a filling station where Lionberg worked in the mostly white Chicago suburb of Homewood.

The couple’s bodies were found the next day in an abandoned townhouse in mostly black East Chicago Heights (now Ford Heights), where the defendants lived with their families. Both victims had been shot and Schmal had been gang-raped. A false tip from a man named Charles McCraney, who lived near the murder scene, led to the arrest of the defendants. During interrogation, Gray, 17, confessed that she held a disposable cigarette lighter burning while her four male friends raped Schmal seven times. The men were charged based on her confession, which she recanted before they were tried. At that point, the charges were dismissed against Jimerson, but Gray was charged with the murder and perjury and brought to trial jointly with the three remaining male defendants.

The trial was conducted before two juries — one for the men, the other for Gray. All four were convicted. Williams was sentenced to death, Rainge to life, Adams to 75 years, and Gray to 50 years. The convictions were initially affirmed by the Illinois Supreme Court, but Williams and Rainge won new trials in 1982 because the lawyer who represented them at trial also represented Gray — an obvious conflict. Prosecutors then made a deal with Gray under which she would be released in exchange for testifying against Williams and Rainge at their retrial. As part of the deal, Gray also agreed to testify against Jimerson, who was charged, convicted, and sentenced to death in 1985. Two years later, Williams and Rainge were convicted a second time. The same sentences they had received the first time were imposed — death for Williams, life for Rainge.

In addition to Gray’s false testimony, the defendants’ various trials included erroneous eyewitness identification testimony, the testimony of a jailhouse snitch who falsely claimed to have heard Rainge and Williams talking about the crime in jail, false forensic testimony, and police and prosecutorial misconduct. In 1996, DNA testing exonerated all five and led to the arrests and convictions of the actual culprits. In 1999 Cook County settled lawsuits filed by the innocent men for $36 million — the largest civil rights payment in U.S. history. Rainge’s share of the settlement was $7.3 million. Gray’s suit was settled in 2008 for an additional $4 million.

For a summary of the case see Kenneth Adams

For more about Rainge's second trial see Dennis Williams

Rob Warden