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Top prosecutor could face scrutiny over work in 1996 double-murder conviction

Tuesday, March 19, 2013
Chicago Tribune
by Steve Mills

As in many potential wrongful conviction cases, Carl Williams insists he is innocent and says Chicago police, in a rush to solve the 1994 murders of a former college basketball star and his girlfriend, botched the investigation. To support his claim, he and his lawyer point to sworn statements from several co-defendants who exonerate Williams in the killings and say they told police that from the beginning. That set of circumstances alone might make Williams' appeal a complex, difficult one for Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez, but his case adds one more knotty factor. When a jury found Williams guilty at a trial in 1996, Alvarez was one of the prosecutors. Now Alvarez's office is defending the case as Williams, 36, continues to press an appeal. Lawyers and legal ethicists say that could present the county's top prosecutor, who has drawn criticism for her tough stance on innocence claims, with a fresh challenge: defending her own trial work. "The office is notoriously slow to dismiss cases where actual innocence is shown. It's a signature of the office," said Leonard Cavise, a professor at the DePaul University College of Law who also has handled criminal appeals. "This puts her in an especially difficult position." The Illinois Appellate Court twice has found in Williams' favor and ordered the trial court to allow him to pursue an innocence claim, saying the evidence gathered so far by his attorneys could lead to an acquittal if he won a new trial. Prosecutors have beaten back Williams' efforts in the past and now are appealing to the Illinois Supreme Court to head off an evidentiary hearing ordered by the Appellate Court. Alvarez's office argues that Williams' case does not clear the legal hurdles established to press an innocence claim, and that the Appellate Court was wrong to grant him the evidentiary hearing. What's more, the prosecutors point to Williams' disputed confession, saying that while it is the only significant piece of evidence tying him to the crime, it was enough to prove his involvement. Alan Spellberg, supervisor of the criminal appeals division for the state's attorney's office, said there was no evidence, including police reports, that Williams' co-defendants ever told detectives during the investigation that Williams was not involved in the double murder. Nor was there evidence that Alvarez or any of the other prosecutors on the case knew of those claims. In a brief filed with the state's highest court arguing against a hearing, prosecutors said the sworn statements filed by Williams "are not new, reliable or trustworthy eyewitness accounts." Spellberg insisted that the office has no problem reviewing its own prosecutions, including one handled by Alvarez. "We want to make sure we're doing the right thing by everyone and defending the convictions as appropriately as we can. And if we see that there's a mistake that was made, we'll confess error," he said. "We're not shy about doing that even if the case was tried by attorneys at the highest level of the office." Williams was 17 when he and four others were charged in the January 1994 murders of Reginald Wilson, a former basketball star at Illinois State University, and his girlfriend, Felicia Lewis. Wilson, 23, and Lewis, 20, were sitting in their car at a gas station on the South Side when, according to police, five men forced them at gunpoint into the back seat and drove away. The men raped Lewis, then forced the victims into a large trash bin and shot them to death. Williams, who was sentenced to life without parole, has maintained his innocence during nearly two decades in prison. Michael Sklar, an attorney who specialized in corporate finance and mergers and acquisitions, met Williams at Stateville Correctional Center when he volunteered on a project about juveniles serving life sentences. He was struck by the case and took up Williams' defense about six years ago for free. "I was certainly convinced he'd gotten a raw deal," said Sklar, who expressed concern about Alvarez's role in defending the case on appeal. Reviews of potential wrongful conviction cases can test professional and personal loyalties, as ranking prosecutors see questions raised about their old cases. The Williams case seemingly raises the ante for Alvarez, who argued strenuously for a guilty verdict in closing arguments. "The police didn't frame Carl Williams," a transcript of the trial quotes her as telling jurors in 1996. "What reason do they have to pick on Carl Williams? You haven't heard any evidence from those witnesses of any reason to frame Carl Williams. And why in the world would they want to? Why in the world would they want to frame someone who didn't do it and let the real killers go free? Does that make any sense?" Alvarez could be called on to explain her work in Williams' prosecution and, as head of the office now, ultimately would make the final decision on whether to continue defending the conviction if Williams' claims hold up.

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