07/29/1996 at 01:00 AM EDT
THE CRIME ITSELF COULD SCARCELY have been more senseless. In the early hours of May 11, 1978, Carol Schmal, 23, and Larry Lionberg, 29, who were engaged to be married, were kidnapped at gunpoint from a gas station where he worked in Homewood, Ill, just south of Chicago. Driven several miles to an abandoned townhouse in a poor, black neighborhood now known as Ford Heights, Schmal was repeatedly raped, then shot in the back of the head. Lionberg, also shot in the head, was left to die alongside a nearby creek.
Horrific as the case was, it soon claimed additional victims. Police quickly arrested four working-class black men—Dennis Williams, then 21; Verneal Jimerson, 26; Kenneth Adams, 20; and William Rainge, 20—who were convicted of the murders. Yet incontrovertibly, all four were innocent. Now, after a combined total of 65 years in prison—Williams and Jimerson served most of their time on death row—the four have been exonerated and freed because of the doggedness of a Northwestern University journalism professor and his students, as well as by an equally tenacious private investigator and a score of pro bono lawyers. "What we had here was a conspiracy to railroad four men," says the professor, David Protess, 50. "I've never seen anything this bad."
For Protess, working on such projects is a mission rooted in his childhood. As the 7-year-old son of a businessman and a homemaker in New York City, he saw the 1953 headline "Rosenbergs Fried" the morning after the controversial execution of convicted spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. "I can still recall standing there and seeing that," says Protess. "It's that vivid. At that point I really felt like I could not in my life allow this to happen to somebody else if I have the power to prevent it." And so at the beginning of the January quarter this year, Protess—formerly a good-government crusader for a nonprofit organization and now a professor at Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism—assigned seniors in his investigative-reporting class to take on the murder of Schmal and Lionberg, which he had looked into over the years. For three students the case "became an obsession," says Stephanie Goldstein, 22, of Birmingham, Ala., who along with Laura Sullivan, 22, of San Francisco, and Stacey Delo, 22, of St. Louis, spent day after day reviewing the evidence and tracking down leads.
Nearly two decades earlier, spurred by public outcry over the brutal slayings, police were equally obsessed with making an arrest. On the morning of May 12, Dennis Williams, who did odd jobs and lived in the neighborhood, was watching as authorities removed the bodies of Schmal and Lionberg. Nearby, his friend Verneal Jimerson, who worked at a car wash and had a wife and three daughters, was looking for the sunglasses he had left in Williams's car on the way home from work two nights before. At that point a couple of police investigators started to question Jimerson and search Williams's car. The next thing Jimerson and Williams knew, they were handcuffed, hustled into a squad car and driven to the Homewood station, even though no gun or other evidence had been found. "I was beaten, pushed and shoved and called all these names—nigger, SOB, the worst names you can imagine," says Williams. "I was thinking, 'This has got to be a dream, this can't be real.' "
That night, Williams was taken by sheriffs-office investigators to the house where Schmal's murder had taken place. One officer, saying he was her uncle, showed Williams a picture of the victims. "Once I saw that they were white, I just knew I was good as dead," recalls Williams, who says a gun was pressed to his neck and he was ordered to confess. "If you're going to kill me, go ahead and do it," he told the officers. "I'm not confessing to nothing. I'm not going to lie on myself."
Within a few days police had two other suspects: Adams, who was currently unemployed, and a friend, Rainge, who worked at a car dealership. Adams's girlfriend Paula Gray, who had an IQ under 70 and a long history of mental illness, had placed the four men, all of whom knew each other, at the scene of the crime. Police also produced another witness, Charles McCraney, a neighbor who according to three of the men disliked them because they talked and played music outside his home. He said he had seen Adams and Williams in the vicinity of the abandoned townhouse on the day of the killings, and Rainge the day before. It seemed to matter little to investigators that Adams, Jimerson and Rainge had never been in trouble with the law; only Williams had a record—for stealing and setting fire to a motorcycle when he was 17.
Nonetheless, on May 15—just four days after the killings—the men were ordered held without bond and paraded before the news cameras. But almost immediately the state's case began looking shaky. At a preliminary hearing a month later, Gray recanted her testimony, claiming police had forced her to implicate the four men after questioning her for several days in a hotel room. (Protess would later locate police receipts for the hotel.) Since her testimony was the only evidence against Jimerson, charges against him were dropped, but prosecutors charged Gray with perjury and involvement in the murder and rape; she received a 50-year sentence. To bolster their case, says Adams, prosecutors offered to free him in return for his testimony against the others. "It hit me real hard then that these people don't plan to search for the truth," he says. "They planned to railroad us." Adams refused to cooperate.
After a five-week trial in the fall of 1978, all three men were convicted. Adams was sentenced to 75 years, Rainge to life and Williams to death. At Statesville prison, Williams was given a death row cell just 30 feet from the electric chair. "That was rather eerie," he says, "to think how close I was to this tool of death. From time to time I pictured myself being strapped down in that chair and having the switch flipped." In 1982 the convictions of Williams and Rainge were overturned on appeal because of poor representation by their attorney. But at the retrial in 1987, Gray recanted yet again, this time testifying against the men in return for her release. They were convicted, as was Jimerson in a separate trial. In 1995, Jimerson, who had joined Williams on death row, had his conviction overturned by the Illinois supreme court, which called the state's case "disingenuous." Then, in May 1995, hours before his execution, convicted murderer Girvies Davis (PEOPLE, May 22, 1995) called Protess, who had been working on his behalf, about a condemned man he knew whose case was worth investigating. The man was Dennis Williams.
Over the next several months a team including Protess, his students, private investigator Rene Brown and pro bono lawyers, some of whom had been involved in the case for years, set to work. The first task was locating Paula Gray, who was living in a public housing project. In a signed affidavit, she maintained once more that police had pressured her to accuse the four men of the murders. But the real breakthrough occurred when the students came across investigators' notes, made just after the killings, that seemed to point to other suspects. According to the notes, a man named Marvin Simpson told police that on the night of the murders he heard four or five shots and saw an acquaintance, Ira Johnson, running near the townhouse. The next day, Johnson and his brother Dennis were seen with two friends, Arthur Robinson and Johnnie Rodriguez, selling merchandise apparently stolen from the Homewood gas station.
Protess was stunned. Police never interviewed the suspects or talked with Simpson again. The professor enlisted Brown, the private investigator, to help find the four men. Protess soon discovered that Dennis Johnson had died of a drug overdose in 1993, and the group quickly tracked down Robinson and Ira Johnson, who ultimately admitted their part in the killings. Driving away from the Menard Correctional Center, where Johnson, 36, was serving 74 years for another murder, Laura Sullivan, the confession in hand, felt a wave of exhilaration. "I thought, 'We did it, we actually did it,' " she says. "Having them tell the truth just seemed to put things right again."
Last month, Protess broke the news to Williams. "After 10 years I got to tell him that freedom was at hand," says Protess. "And there was silence. He put the phone down twice because he was crying, and basically I did too." In the past month, thanks to the new evidence, and bolstered by the results of tests showing that the DNA of Williams, Adams, Jimerson and Rainge did not match that of a semen sample recovered from Carol Schmal, the four men have been cleared of all charges.
They return, of course, to vastly altered lives. Rainge had left his son Tederol Moutry in diapers; now 20, Tederol is in a wheelchair, paralyzed from the waist down after a gunshot wound two years ago. Jimerson became a grandfather five times while in prison and also lost his parents. "The pain is still there," he says. "I still hear the door slamming and see the bars." Yet the four have vowed not to be consumed by bitterness. What none of them can fathom, though, is why the police acted as they did. "My life was taken away for no reason," Adams says. "I was trying to figure out what type of people would do that."
So is the Cook County sheriff's office, which is investigating the handling of the case. Meanwhile the local state's attorney, Jack O'Malley, has apologized to the men for what he called a glaring example of the legal system's fallibility. In all likelihood the four will sue the state; they may also soon wrap up a movie deal. Protess's students—Goldstein is going to law school, Sullivan is an intern at a newspaper, and Delo is aiming to become a documentary filmmaker—will likely get a cut. (Protess has refused any share of the money. "I do not intend to profit at the expense of these men," he says.) Though elated that a grotesque wrong has been righted, he remains outraged—and shaken—by the case. "With the current laws on the books for expediting executions, Verneal Jimerson and Dennis Williams would have been dead long ago and exonerated posthumously," he says. "To me it's frightening that a college professor and three of his students could have solved this crime when it was there to be solved all the time."
LUCHINA FISHER in Chicago