One of the first men on Illinois’ death row that a group of Northwestern journalism and law professors and students worked to exonerate died last week at age 46.
Dennis Williams, a defendant in the 1978 “Ford Heights Four” case, died at his home in Flossmoor, Ill., of a heart attack March 24, according to Medill School of Journalism Prof. David Protess. He will be buried Wednesday in Mississippi, where he was born.
“I was stunned,” said Rob Warden, executive director of the Law School’s Center on Wrongful Convictions. “People here are stunned. He appeared to be the picture of health.”
Williams and three others were convicted of the 1978 double murder. Williams and one other man were put on death row and the other two were sentenced to life in prison. The original defendants won a $36 million settlement from Cook County in 1999.
After he was exonerated in 1996, Williams mainly kept to himself and focused on his hobbies, such as collecting model cars and fixing his home, Warden said. Williams also worked to help free other death row inmates through Protess’ Medill Innocence Project and briefly served as a youth counselor with a service organization.
“He had lived a stressful life,” Warden said. “He emerged from prison a fractured human being. He had a great sense of humor and a great deal of intelligence, but he had a hard time adjusting to free society.”
Warden began working on the case in 1983 but teamed with law Prof. Lawrence Marshall, Protess and some of Protess’ students in 1986.
“He was optimistic all the time – through two death sentences – actually, more optimistic than I had been,” Warden said. “He knew that some day the truth would come out and it did. After 18 years, there was still testable DNA, miraculously.”
Williams also participated in some of the center’s activities, Warden said. He was last at the Law School in November when former Gov. George Ryan pardoned Paula Gray, whose false confession led to Williams’ conviction. Williams embraced Gray after the ceremony, Protess said.
Williams also participated in public education programs, encouraged reform of the justice system and tried to help people who were in the situation he once faced.
It is not uncommon for former death row inmates to die young, said Marshall, who also serves as legal director of NU’s Center on Wrongful Convictions. Of the 107 exonerated nationwide, 15 have died at a young age.
“They use so much energy for so long trying to be free,” Marshall said. “Who knows the impact that has on the mind and the body?”
Protess said both he and his family had developed a close relationship with Williams since his exoneration.
“(Williams) was beginning to turn his life around, which makes his death all the more tragic,” Protess said.
His son, Benjamin Protess, an Education freshman at NU, played basketball and shot pool with Williams, who was a daily visitor at their home, Protess said.
“There’s a bond that forms between a death row inmate and a journalist or lawyer who helps saves them that lasts a lifetime,” David Protess said. “When you’re not with them, they are often in your thoughts.”
He said although he was particularly sad about Williams’ death, he was comforted by the thought that Williams was cleared of charges.
“The only consolation in his death is that at least he died in his own home as an exonerated free man,” Protess said. “He could have died on death row.”