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Herman Williams exonerated, released from prison after serving nearly 30 years for a murder he didn't commit

Innocent man freed after nearly three decades in prison
Innocent man freed after nearly three decades in prison 03:06

SHERIDAN, Ill. (CBS) -- Herman Williams was in prison for a crime he didn't commit for almost 30 years – before he was exonerated Tuesday thanks to the Illinois Innocence Project.

As CBS 2's Tara Molina reported, Williams' conviction was overturned based on new DNA evidence, faulty forensics, and misconduct related to his case.

A decorated member of the Navy, Williams – now 58 - was convicted in a murder case back in 1993 in Waukegan, where he was stationed.

Walking out the doors of the Sheridan Correctional Center in LaSalle County on Tuesday a free man, Williams said his story is a lesson never to give up. 

"Anybody who knows me knows I couldn't have done this," Williams said. "I wouldn't have done this."

The wrongful conviction happened in 1994. A joyful release came in 2022.

"It's still sinking in," Williams said, "but I feel vindicated - that's the word."

Williams embraced family and friends in a way he couldn't for almost 30 years.

"Driving away from the prison, that was just overwhelming," Williams said. "Words can't describe the feelings that run through me."

He told us minutes after stepping out of the Sheridan Correctional Center, he had something he wanted everyone at home to hear.

"Don't give up," he said. "Never stop fighting for right."

Williams spent nearly 30 years in prison for a crime he did not commit – and a crime that tore his family apart.

On Sept. 26, 1993, Williams' ex-wife, Penny Williams, was found in a shallow pond in Waukegan. She had gone missing several days earlier, according to the Innocence Project.

Ms. Williams died of blunt force trauma, and had defensive wounds that indicated a struggle with an attacker, the Innocence Project reported.

At the time, Ms. Williams had been living with her ex-husband and their two children – ages 3 and 6 – at his home in Gurnee, where he was living while stationed at the Great Lakes Naval Air Base. Both Mr. and Ms. Williams were from Arizona, the Innocence Project reported.

Mr. Williams was remarried at the time, but was also separated from his then-current wife, the Innocence Project reported.

The Innocence Project said after Ms. Williams was reported missing, the Lake County Major Crimes Task Force focused only on Mr. Williams as the suspect. Prosecutors claimed he murdered his ex-wife so he could move to California – where he was to be restationed on a naval ship – with his current wife and his children, the Innocence Project said.

Mr. Williams was convicted in February 1994 and sentenced to life in prison three months later by Lake County Judge Charles Scott.

In 2021, testing was conducted on the male DNA found under Ms. Williams' fingernails at the time of her autopsy. The DNA did not match Mr. Williams', the Lake County State's Attorney's office reported.

DNA analysis also found the small amount of blood found in Mr. Williams' vehicle was not that of Ms. Williams, the State's Attorney's office said.

Meanwhile, Lake County State's Attorney's Office Conviction Integrity Unit Chief Kevin Malia found that two different forensic pathologists agreed Mr. Williams' trial jury heard evidence that was "scientifically unsupported" about the time Ms. Williams died.

In documents filed in July, both Lake County Forensic Pathologist Dr. Eimad Zakariya and defense-retained expert Dr. James Filkins agreed the 1994 trial expert – Dr. Nancy Jones – had wrongly narrowed the date of Ms. Williams' death to a window of time between the night of Sept 22 and 23, 1993. Zakariya and Filkins said Ms. Williams died much closer to the time she was found on Sunday, Sept. 26, and there was no scientific basis for Jones' timeline.

Thus, a Lake County judge vacated Mr. Williams' 1994 conviction.

The Lake County State's Attorney's Office acknowledged the detective on Mr. Williams' case - who claimed Mr. Williams confessed when Williams insisted he never did - is now known for a pattern of misconduct. Detective Lou Tessman, who had been deputy commander of the Lake County Major Crimes Task Force at the time, had a record of false confessions and claims suspects admitted guilt in other innocence cases, according to the Innocence Project.

Among the other cases with which Tessman was involved was that of Juan Rivera - who served more than 19 years in prison for the rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl in Waukegan that he did not commit - and that of Jason Strong, who was wrongly convicted of the 1999 murder of a Carpentersville woman, according to the Innocence Project.

The Innocence Project also said Mr. Williams' defense attorney failed at his job. The defense attorney failed to investigate the case thoroughly, meet with forensic experts, and cross-examine with a crucial, but incompetent witness, the Innocence Project said.

"Every conviction must have integrity; it must be grounded in science and in fact, and it must be the product of a fair police investigation and trial," Lake County State's Attorney Eric Rinehart said in a news release. "Because of deeply erroneous scientific evidence, new DNA results, and a faulty trial, our office was compelled to agree to Mr. Williams' release. While we acknowledge that Mr. Williams is gaining his freedom due to overwhelming new evidence that calls into question the verdict, we know that the victim's family is suffering to understand how so many mistakes could have been made nearly 30 years ago." 

Lauren Kaeseberg of the Illinois Innocence Project has been fighting for this day for about eight years.

"It does sort of fill your tank up. The work is hard," Kaeseberg said. "The wins are few and far between, but they're being ones."

Mr. Williams' sister, Carolyn Langendorf, and father, Sonny Williams, both traveled from Arizona to be here for this moment.

"It's good to have my brother back," Langendorf said.

"They haven't broke his spirit," said Sonny Williams. "We're going get back on the right track."

Speaking of the right track, Mr. Williams had some plans for his first taste of changed world. It was something he hopes hasn't changed much.

"A cheeseburger with bacon," he said.

Herman Williams is the 22nd person to be exonerated and released through the Illinois Innocence Project.

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