photograph © 2011 Loren Santow
Dubious testimony by a purported eyewitness landed Steven Smith on death row
June 30, 1985, Virdeen Willis Jr., an off-duty assistant warden at the Illinois penitentiary in Pontiac, was shot to death outside the Shamrock Lounge on the south side of Chicago. Steven Smith, 36, who had been drinking in the bar, was charged with the crime after he was identified by a woman named Debrah Caraway, who claimed to have witnessed the murder. It was Caraway's testimony that ultimately sent Smith to death row, but that testimony was dubious for several reasons.
First, Caraway had been smoking crack cocaine. Second, she claimed Willis was alone when the killer stepped out of shadows and fired the fatal shot, but two other witnesses said they were standing beside Willis when he was murdered. Third, Caraway's boyfriend, Pervis (Pepper) Bell, was an alternative suspect in the murder. Finally, Caraway, according to her account, was across the street when the crime occurred and, while she positively identified Smith, the two persons who were standing beside Willis were within only two or three feet of the killer and could not identify Smith.
On February 19, 1999, the Illinois Supreme Court held that Caraway's testimony was less reliable than the contradictory testimony of the other witnesses and reversed the conviction outright, ordering Smith's release from prison. Smith's case is unusual in that the error was corrected without the intervention of volunteers outside the system.
text from the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University. Chicago, IL