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Medill Investigation Investigation Raises Questions About Man’s Murder Conviction ---Medill students obtain medical records never raised at trial that call into question whether prisoner could have committed the crime ---Students track down key eyewitness, a known drug addict who gives conflicting statements about the night of the crime ----

More than six years ago, a manʼs head was blown off by a shotgun-wielding intruder in this apartment building on Chicagoʼs West Side. Taylor Soppe/Medill


By Alex Campbell, Jared Hoffman, Caitlin Kearney, Monica Kim, Taylor Soppe and Lara Takenaga Published June 7, 2011 On May 13, 2005, a prison medical form noted the following “Significant Medical History” of Illinois inmate no. N13834: “PARTIAL PARALYSIS (L) HAND.” Less than six months earlier, that inmate, Donald Watkins, had been accused of shooting a man in the head at point-blank range in a ramshackle apartment on Chicagoʼs West Side. The prosecutionʼs key eyewitness would testify later that Watkins dragged her around the apartment with one hand, while holding a sawed-off shotgun in the other. Nearly two years before the crime, Watkins had been shot in the left elbow, sustaining permanent nerve damage. But jurors, who convicted Watkins of first-degree murder, never heard about his debilitating injury. A 10-week investigation of Watkinsʼ case by six students of Northwestern Universityʼs Medill School of Journalism has uncovered several key facts that raise questions about his conviction, according to interviews with the prosecutionʼs star eyewitness, experts in the fields of forensic pathology, orthopedics and neurology, firearms, eyewitness identification and addiction psychiatry, Watkinsʼ family, friends and neighbors, the victimʼs family, attorneys involved in the case, jurors, seven Freedom of Information Act requests, court records, internal police records, prison documents and medical files obtained from the Chicago Fire Department, John H. Stroger Jr. Hospital and Fantus Health Center.

Donald Watkins was convicted of murder and home invasion in 2007 and sentenced to 56 years in prison. Illinois Department of Corrections

The investigation found that: Watkins was shot in the left arm in 2003, nearly killing him and forcing doctors to perform emergency surgery involving four blood transfusions, medical records show. The injury caused significant nerve damage near his elbow that required physical therapy. Police at first said it had no record of the incident in response to a Freedom of Information Act request. A subsequent Freedom of Information Act request, however, confirmed that Watkins had indeed been shot and had been listed in “critical condition.” Watkins, who said he was the victim of a robbery, suffered an injury that partially paralyzed his left hand and calls into question whether he could have committed the murder for which he was convicted.


Prosecutors convinced jurors that Watkins was able to maneuver through the apartment, wielding a sawed-off shotgun, while at the same time dragging a woman around by her collar. His public defender said she didnʼt bring up his injury at trial because she thought, based on his medical records, it was conceivable that he could “prop” up the weapon and “pull the trigger.” She encouraged reporters of this article to look further into Watkinsʼ injury. Verlisha Willis was the prosecutionʼs star witness and a self-acknowledged drug addict. At the trial, she said that she sent a friend to buy heroin and he returned with the drugs, but she said she did not use any drugs that night. In a recent interview for this article, Willis said that she had just bought the drugs herself on the night of the crime and that, “I was getting high” on heroin moments before the shooting. She was taken to the hospital twice for withdrawal in the hours after the shooting, police records show. She also gave contradictory accounts of what she saw in interviews with police, at the trial and with reporters of this story who recently found her selling cigarettes for 50 cents apiece on the street two blocks from the crime scene. For example, she told police just after the crime that the intruder broke in while her boyfriend, Alfred Curry, was watching a movie and then shot Curry. She changed her story by saying in an interview for this article that Watkins followed Curry home from a grocery store and stuck him up from behind as Curry was unlocking the door. Willis was one of two witnesses who identified Watkins as the killer. The other witness, Willisʼ daughter, then 7 years old, could not identify Watkins in a photo array or police lineup immediately after the shooting, court records show. Nearly three years later, in court, she identified him as “Spanky,” a man whom she recognized seeing before in the building where her mother lived. Watkinsʼ nickname was not Spanky, but “Speedy.” The only other known witness to the crime, a man named Maurice Thorne, then believed to be 39 years old, testified that there were two assailants; he did not identify Watkins as either. Thorne also testified that he, Thorne, was schizophrenic and a drug user. No physical evidence linked Watkins to the crime. Bloody footprints found at the crime scene did not match the shoes Watkins was wearing at the time of his arrest. Watkins allegedly confessed to the crime while in police custody, according to internal police records, but details of that alleged confession do not match the facts confirmed by police. For instance, in the alleged confession, Watkins said that Curry, the victim, let him into the apartment. But the physical evidence shows


that the back door was kicked in. Although Watkins was held in custody for about 47 hours after the arrest, authorities did not document his alleged confession by video, audio recording or in a signed written statement. During the trial, prosecutors did not mention his alleged confession to jurors. Prosecutors declined to respond to questions for this article, including why they did not raise the alleged confession at trial. Watkins, in a prison interview for this article, said he never confessed and the alleged confession was not true. He said police handcuffed him to a pole attached to the wall, punched him in the stomach and placed a plastic bag over his head. Police declined repeated requests to comment about the alleged abuse or any other matter for this article. The jury struggled to reach a verdict, almost resulting in a hung jury, according to interviews for this article. Several jurors questioned whether the star witness, Willis, was capable of accurately identifying Watkins, given her drug addiction. In addition, the jury was troubled that the bloody footprints in the apartment and the impression on the kicked-in door had no known connection to each other and did not match Watkinsʼ shoes taken from him when he was arrested. The jurors were deadlocked at the end of their first day of deliberations. Three jurors still werenʼt sure of Watkinsʼ guilt until about one hour before they finally found him guilty. Watkinsʼ conviction so bothered a Please also read the Story Behind veteran court reporter while she was the Story, which chronicles how six transcribing the trial proceedings that she Northwestern University pleaded with a law professor who also is a undergraduate students conducted their investigation, and Haunted former police officer to look into the case Memory, which explains the origins of Watkins whom she believes to be of their investigation. innocent. The court reporter said in an interview for this article that this is the only time she felt compelled to take such action in her 18-year career. Watkins, who was without an attorney at the time this article was published, filed an appeal soon after his conviction. In February 2010, the First District Appellate Court of Illinois denied his appeal in a 2-1 decision. “Defendant was proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt,” the judges wrote in the majority decision. The Illinois Supreme Court subsequently refused Watkins' petition to hear his case. Then, representing himself, Watkins filed a petition for “postconviction relief,” which a Cook County judge dismissed in January, saying the issues he raised, including alleged prosecutorial misconduct, were “frivolous and


patently without merit.” Watkins is appealing the dismissal and will be represented by a yet-to-be-assigned state appellate attorney, said Karen Munoz, a deputy defender for the Fourth District State Appellate Defender, which represented Watkins during his first appeal. Prosecutors declined to comment on the case. “The defendant's post conviction petition was summarily dismissed by a judge prior to any involvement by the Cook County State's Attorney's Office. The State's Attorney's Office has no further comment on the case pending the filling of any further post conviction appeals,” said spokesman Andy Conklin in an email. For now, Watkins waits. “I wake up every day with a heavy heart because I'm in jail for something I didn't do,” said Watkins, now 50 years old, in an interview for this article. Next >> Source URL: http://www.medillinnocenceproject.org/donwatkins


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Medill Investigation Crime Scene A yellow brick apartment building sits opposite a Walgreens on the corner of West North and North Parkside avenues in a hardscrabble neighborhood of Chicagoʼs West Side. In the adjacent alleyway a wooden-plank door opens to a winding staircase which leads up to the second floorʼs back entrances. On the evening of Sunday, Dec. 5, 2004, Willis and her friend, Thorne, drank beer, played cards and watched television in the living room of the second-floor apartment Willis shared with Curry, her longtime boyfriend. Curry was in the bedroom, sitting at the foot of the bed watching a movie, while Willisʼ 7-year-old daughter, Melissa, was asleep on top of the covers. That much of the account is not in dispute, based on police records and the testimonies of Willis, her daughter and Thorne at trial nearly three years later. Their versions diverge, though, on what happened next: In one account, Willis testified that she and Thorne heard a “loud bang,” then another, at about 12:40 a.m. A man holding a sawed-off shotgun reached his arm out from behind a wall in the apartment and grabbed

To read the documents obtained by the Medill students over the course of this caseʼs investigation, please see: Police Report Alfred Curryʼs Autopsy Report Pre-Trial Court Documents, Part One Pre-Trial Court Documents, Part Two Pre-Trial Court Documents, Part Three Pre-Trial Court Documents, Part Four Pre-Trial Court Document, Part Five, and Trial Documents, Part One Trial Documents, Part Two Trial Documents, Part Three Trial Documents, Part Four Defenseʼs Exhibits Jury Instructions and Notes Various Court Documents One Various Court Documents Two Post-Conviction Petition Appellate Court Decision Appellate Brief Appellate Reply Brief Supreme Court Petition Alfred Curryʼs Court Records Donald Watkinsʼ Prior One Donald Watkinsʼ Prior One, Part Two Donald Watkinsʼ Prior One, Part Three Donald Watkinsʼ Prior Two Donald Watkinsʼ Prior Three Gunshot Injury Report Police Injury Report Prison Medical Records


her. “If you donʼt give me the sh-- and the money, bi---, Iʼm going to show you how youʼre going to be looking,” he told her, according to her testimony.

Gunshot Medical Records Bartik-Lanza Suit Bartik-McGee Suit Bartik-McGee Verdict

He then dragged her by the collar into the bedroom, with the shotgun “under his armpit,” while he “remained able to hold” Willis, according to her statement to police. Curry, then 59 years old, was slumped over the bed, with chunks of his brain scattered on the floor, Willis said. The shotgun blast left the bedroom covered in a mist of blood on the walls and ceiling. The killer was wearing a black-hooded sweatshirt, dark pants and a black skullcap with makeshift holes for the eyes, Willis said. She also said there was only one intruder, but Thorne said he saw two, one in a blue shirt, the other in a black jacket and red skullcap. Willis said the gun-toting man then removed his skullcap, and she recognized him as Speedy, whom she told detectives she had met before. Willis told the assailant that Thorne had the drugs and money he was looking for. When the intruder turned the shotgun on Thorne, Willis bolted down the stairs. Willis, at trial, said she turned to scream for Melissa to jump out the window, but realized that Speedy was right behind Willis. Willis said he chased her through the Walgreens parking lot and into the middle of the street, where she started screaming. Speedy hid the shotgun in his sweatshirt pocket and slipped away, Willis said. Just then, two Chicago police officers in a marked vehicle were approaching West North Avenue. As a call came through dispatch indicating someone had been shot, they saw Willis waving her hands in the air and screaming, “They killed my boyfriend,” one of the officers testified. Willis later told police that she only saw one gunman.


On Dec. 6, 2004, Alfred Curryʼs killer chased Verlisha Willis from the yellow brick apartment building on North Parkside Avenue to the Walgreens across the street, according to one of Willisʼ accounts of what happened the night of the crime. Taylor Soppe/Medill

Finding Speedy

Minutes after the shooting—at 12:43 a.m.— detectives began their investigation. Willis gave them a nickname: Speedy. She also gave them some other leads, including where she believed he lived. An internal police computer search brought up a photo and address for Watkins, who had multiple felony convictions. Officers showed Willis the photo, and she identified him, according to police documents. Speedy was a nickname Watkins earned growing up. He loved to play baseball. As his younger sister, Michelle Watkins, recalled in an interview for this article, Watkins was so fast when he ran the bases that people in the neighborhood started calling him Speedy. It stuck. The intersection of West North and North Parkside avenues lies at the heart of the rough-and-tumble At about 6 in the morning after the crime, neighborhood on Chicagoʼs West Side where Alfred Sharon Blake, a Chicago police officer who worked as Curry was killed. Taylor Soppe/Medill a 911 dispatcher and has since retired after nearly 30 years, was awoken by her brother who said the police were at the front door. Officers asked her if she knew anyone named “Speed,” not Speedy. She said no. How about Don?


Blake owns an apartment building about two blocks north of where Curry was shot. Blake lives on the second floor, and in late December 2004, her nephew, Watkins, occupied the basement. Blake testified she had last seen Watkins at about 8 the night before. She had given him $30 from his mother. On the night of the crime, Watkins said in an interview for this article that he had wandered upstairs to the first floor, where his uncle, Andre Watkins, lived and was celebrating his birthday with some friends. Andre, who had been drinking all day, said in an interview for this article that he was passed out so he couldnʼt remember anything. When police arrived in the morning, Blake went downstairs to wake Watkins, who was in bed in his underwear. A woman named Faye Porter was asleep in the bed. Porter told police she was asleep during the hours of the crime. Police soon returned to the apartment with a search warrant. They found no physical evidence tying Watkins to the crime, court and police records show. Three footprints—two of them bloody— were found at the crime scene. The “pattern and design” did not match Watkinsʼ shoes, police records show. One footprint was found near the doorknob of the apartmentʼs back door. Police Donald Watkins has been called “Speedy” since his concluded that the door had been kicked in childhood when he played baseball and zipped around the bases. Courtesy of Linda Spates because the lock plate and anchoring screws had been forcibly removed while the lock was still in place. The other two footprints, both bloody, were found on the kitchen floor. A forensic scientist checked the footprints against a pair of shoes collected from Watkins at the time of his arrest and was unable to find a match. Willis identified Watkins in a police lineup. In the span of 44 hours after the shooting, Willis was taken to the hospital twice, suffering from drug withdrawal during her time at the police station. According to Willisʼ testimony, a detective took her home where she found and drank methadone, a synthetic narcotic that eases withdrawal symptoms. At the trial, a detective said no methadone was found at her apartment. In the hours after the shooting, Willisʼ daughter Melissa was shown a photo array with


Watkins in it, but she didnʼt identify him. Thorne, the other witness to the crime, told detectives he saw two men in the apartment, one armed with a shotgun and the other “also armed with a long gun,” according to police records. However, he said he wasnʼt wearing his glasses and, because he stepped out of a window onto a landing when he heard the door get kicked in, he could not identify either man. Watkins, meanwhile, agreed to a polygraph exam, which “indicated deception,” according to police reports. Polygraph exams are not admissible in Illinois courts. Police declined to make the polygraph examiner, Chicago Police Officer Robert Bartik, available for comment for this article. Records show that Bartik and two detectives lost a $1.3 million Cook County Circuit Court civil suit last year in a different case in which a jury found that he and two detectives fabricated a confession. The city, which represents the officers, said it is appealing the ruling. After about 40 hours in custody, police had yet to charge Watkins with any crime, but he learned that he had been identified in the lineup. Police did not tell him, however, that Willisʼ daughters, Melissa and Raneesha, did not identify him. Both girls told police they had seen a man in the apartment hallway a week before whom Melissa identified as the intruder. Less than an hour later, Watkins asked detectives for a cigarette, and told them to get a notepad, according to police records. This is what police allege Watkins confessed to: At an undetermined time, Porter arrived at Watkinsʼ basement apartment high on crack cocaine. The two discussed getting high together but didn't have money to buy drugs. Porter eventually passed out on his bed. Watkins decided to pawn his shotgun to Curry, who had previously given Watkins crack cocaine with the shotgun used as collateral. Watkins had returned with money and retrieved his shotgun. On the night of the crime, Watkins slipped on his coat and a winter knit cap and went alone to Curry's apartment. Curry opened the back door to let him in, then returned to his bedroom. Watkins flipped up the gun, pointed it at Curry and asked if Curry wanted it. Turning to Watkins, Curry thought Watkins was trying to rob him, and Curry tried to grab him. Watkins fell to the floor and the shotgun discharged. When the gun fired, Watkins panicked, crawled out of the bedroom and ran to the back door. Watkins pulled the door open with such force that “screws came from the [door]jamb and that part of the door lock flew 8-10 feet across the room,” while he also was able to maintain possession of the sawed-off pistol grip shotgun. The shooting was an accident and Watkins was not even aware Curry had been shot. When he got home, he washed his clothes and soaked his hands in bleach because he knew about gunshot residue from watching the television show “The New Detectives.” (Gunshot residue could have indicated that he had recently fired a weapon.) Then he fell asleep next to Porter. << Back

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Medill Investigation This police account of Watkins' alleged confession was not recorded by video, audio recording or in a signed statement. During a pre-trial motion, then-Assistant State's Attorney Stuart Sergeant said that authorities did not record Watkins' alleged confession because they faced a more urgent problem: They were running out of time to charge Watkins with a crime; under most circumstances, Chicago police are mandated to release or charge a suspect arrested without a warrant within 48 hours of being detained, and Watkins had been held for about 47 hours. Sergeant first spoke with Watkins when authorities had about four hours left to make a decision and did not offer to record his confession. Shortly after his interview with Watkins, Sergeant took a signed handwritten statement from Willis. After that, Sergeant spoke again with Watkins who allegedly gave the same confession. That, too, was not recorded. Sergeant, now in private practice, declined to comment for this article. Porter told detectives that she did not know where Watkins went or what he did while she was asleep on the night of the crime, but she said that they did not talk about getting or taking drugs and did not discuss how to find money to pay for them as Watkins is reported to have said in his alleged confession. Porter also said that she did not take any drugs that evening and, though she was a heroin user, she never did heroin with Watkins. Gina Piemonte, one of Watkins' public defenders at the trial, argued during a pre-trial motion that his confession was not recorded because significant details were different from the facts confirmed by authorities. For example, Watkins allegedly confessed that he forcibly pulled the back door, ripping out screws and sending part of the lock flying, as he sought to flee after the shooting, but the evidence technician at trial said that the door was kicked in from the outside. The door measured 34 inches by 80 inches and was made of wood, according to the apartment building's owner, Pastor H. Lee Jordan Jr. At the most, Watkins would have been able to pull the doorknob off, not the screws that attached the door to its frame, said Steve Graboff, a certified forensic physician who has more than 20 years of experience testifying as an orthopedic surgeon and expert witness in more than 400 cases. “Thereʼs no way he could pull the hardware off,” Graboff said. “The hinges are going to absorb all the energy that he uses to open the door.” In Watkins' alleged confession, he also claimed that the shotgun discharged accidentally when it hit the ground, but Curry's autopsy records revealed “evidence of contact range firing,” meaning that the shot was likely fired at point-blank range. Watkinsʼ alleged confession was “not the statement that they want from him because it doesn't


match the physical evidence and it doesn't match the eyewitness testimony,” said Piemonte, one of Watkinsʼ public defenders. Before the trial, when Piemonte asked Watkins about the alleged confession, he said he replied, “What confession?” Detectives wrote up a confession and asked him to sign it, but he refused to do so, Watkins said in an interview for this article. Why, he asked, would authorities wait several hours to charge him if they had obtained a confession? And why, he asked, was the confession not recorded? “All they wanted me to do was sign it,” he said. “It was already wrote up [sic]. Why would I sign away my freedom when I was innocent?” While in custody, a detective handcuffed him to the wall, turned off the light and punched him in the Even with his injured arm and hand, Donald Watkins pulled the stomach, Piemonte said in a pre-trial motion. In an apartmentʼs back door with such force that screws popped interview for this article, Watkins said that a police officer out and part of the lock flew off, according to the alleged said, “You sign this,” and Watkins responded, “You have confession he gave to police. Taylor Soppe/Medill to kill me first.” Watkins was locked in the same police interview room for 47 hours, with only a metal bench to sit on, except when he took the polygraph examination, according to Piemonte in a pre-trial motion. Police declined to comment for this article about Watkinsʼ interrogation. In recent interviews for this article, jury members said they did not find out about Watkinsʼ alleged confession to an accidental shooting until after they had reached a verdict finding him guilty of first-degree murder. Prosecutors declined to comment for this article about what was said to the jurors after the trial. At 5:45 a.m. on Dec. 8, nearly 48 hours after his arrest, Watkins was charged with first-degree murder and home invasion. This was not Watkinsʼ first encounter with the law. According to police and court records, he was convicted of robbery in 1979 when he was 18 years old; two and a half years later he was convicted of armed robbery. In 1986, he was again convicted of armed robbery as well as attempted armed robbery. Trial records show he pulled a .38-caliber revolver on the victim. In 1995, Watkins was convicted of aggravated robbery; during that incident, he threatened the victim with a plastic toy gun, court records show. In 2003, less than a year after he was released from prison for the 1995 conviction and three months after he sustained the arm injury, he was arrested and then convicted of a weapons charge after police observed Watkins placing a 9 mm semi-automatic pistol in a telephone booth, according to the arrest report. Still, the latest charge stunned Watkinsʼ family. They didnʼt believe he could have committed murder.


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Gunshot wound On Jan. 12, 2003, nearly two years before Watkins was charged with murder, he was shot in the left arm outside of his apartment when he lived at 7245 S. Coles Ave. According to the police officerʼs written summary of the incident, Watkins “struggle[d] with the offender over the handgun. During the struggle, the firearm discharged and struck victim in upper left arm.” Watkins said three men robbed him. According to paramedics reports, they found him sitting on the rear porch surrounded by puddles of blood that stretched from the side to back doors. He was rushed to John H. Stroger Jr. Hospital, where surgeons operated on him for two hours and 51 minutes. Before operating, doctors noted that there was significant motor and sensory loss within Watkins' left hand. He had sustained a gunshot wound that damaged his brachial artery and ulnar nerve and fractured a bone at his elbow joint, according to medical records. Surgeons operated to repair the damaged artery because Watkins was in immediate danger of dying from blood loss, medical records show. Watkins needed four blood transfusions, and surgeons took a vein from Watkins' left upper thigh to patch the damaged artery in his arm. His pulse returned to normal, but they found what they described as a persistent neurologic deficit. Watkins' ulnar nerve, which controls the pinkie and ring fingers and half of the middle finger, was not functioning properly. “It sounds like the gunshot wound to the left non-dominant elbow caused not only damage to the joint… but it also caused damage to one of the nerves in his arm,” said Graboff, the certified forensic physician and orthopedic surgeon. Graboff did not examine Watkins in person but was asked for this article to assess his injury based on his hospital records, prison medical records, the paramedics


reports, police records and Curryʼs autopsy report. Graboff noted, “The record sounds like the gunshot tore through the artery that supplies his arm from the elbow down.” Had the surgeons not done the graft, he said they “would have had to amputate his arm from the elbow down.” There were no repairs to the ulnar nerve during the operation. When asked why, hospital officials declined to comment for this article, saying it would not be appropriate to discuss a patientʼs care. After the operation, Watkins said he woke up in extreme pain, which lingered for years. “I wish they had cut my arm off,” he said in a recent interview for this article. “I never felt that kind of pain in my life.” Watkins went to physical therapy at Fantus Health Center in Chicago. His girlfriend, Linda Spates, said in an interview for this article that she took him to Fantus once or twice a week for a few months. Watkins recalled how physical therapists would slowly bend his After being shot in the left arm when he said he was the victim of arm bit by bit, trying to restore movement. According to an armed robbery in 2003, Watkins suffered permanent nerve damage. He is pictured here with his longtime girlfriend, Linda his sister, Michelle, he couldn't grasp things, such as a Spates, who took him to physical therapy after the injury. Courtesy of Linda Spates glass of water, with his left hand and struggled to use his left arm at all. Watkins is right handed. Just after his injury, his left arm “would just dangle,” she said. Watkins' prison medical records show that he did not regain full use of his left hand. In May 2005, when Watkins was examined at Stateville Correctional Center, it was noted that he had partial paralysis of the left hand. In November 2007, Watkins was examined at Menard Correctional Center. The examiner wrote that Watkins' left hand had atrophied and that he had decreased strength and range of motion in his left hand and wrist. << Back Source URL: http://www.medillinnocenceproject.org/donwatkins3

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Medill Investigation In his prison interview for this article, Watkins gestured excitedly with his right hand while the left lay still on a table. His ring and pinkie fingers appeared to be fixed in a curled position while the middle finger looked slightly bent, which, according to Graboff, can indicate ulnar-nerve damage. Watkins demonstrated his inability to bend or straighten his ring and pinkie fingers. “So if the [ulnar] nerve was damaged, the fingers begin to claw down because they're partially paralyzed basically,” Graboff said. There is a large, shiny scar on the outside of his elbow where Watkins was shot. The left forearm is significantly smaller than the right, and the muscles look atrophied. When asked how his hand felt, Watkins vigorously pounded his left hand with his right fist. “I canʼt even feel this,” he said. When he tried to bend his left thumb and index fingers, he struggled and his lower arm and hand shook. If Watkins held the weapon in his right hand and grabbed Willis with his left, which is how she described it in an interview for this article, then “that would be very difficult for him to do,” Graboff said. “I donʼt see how he would be able to do that type of maneuver.” He said that Watkins “would be completely free to manhandle someone with his right arm if he was cradling the shotgun with his left arm.” During an interview with police, Willis said Watkins held the gun under one arm when he grabbed her, but she couldnʼt remember which arm. According to Graboff, the only “definitely debilitating” part of his injury is that Watkins would have lost his ability to firmly grip things. John David Sabow, a board-certified neurologist, said it's physically possible that Watkins could have committed the crime as described by Willis, but it would have been much more difficult than for someone who didn't have his injury. Medical records obtained by reporters for this story indicate damage to Watkins' ulnar nerve, but make no mention of his median nerve, which controls the thumb and index finger. Watkins could have used his left thumb and index finger to grasp the shotgun, said Sabow, who has been in the forensic neurology field for 25 years and has testified at a number of murder trials. Graboff said that Watkinsʼ injury could call into question whether he would have been


able to accurately wield a shotgun in his left hand, given the gun's significant recoil when fired. If he held the shotgun in his right hand, then the recoil wouldnʼt have been an issue, he said. According to Ronald Scott, a firearms expert who has testified as an expert witness in numerous state and federal cases, a shotgun has significant recoil and firing a sawed-off shotgun is an even more difficult task. Since the stock—the part of the gun that is held against your shoulder—is one part that is typically cut off, the sawed-off shotgun cannot be braced against the shoulder to absorb the recoil. Because of that, the gunman must use his other hand to grasp the gun underneath the barrel or barrels to control it, Scott said in an interview for this article. “The way you normally shoot a gun like that is you really have to hold it two-handed,” Scott said. “So my right hand is going to be holding the gun like a pistol or revolver, and my other hand is going to be holding just underneath the barrels and that gives it a little bit of control over the recoil.” Scott said that to use the sawed-off shotgun with one hand, the shooter would have to be strong to control the gun, which would pitch backwards and tip upwards after firing. “You've got to have good hand grip, a pretty strong forearm, wrist area and fingers to control the gun,” he said. “Once you shot it, it's almost going to go flying out of your hand.” According to police records, the sawed-off shotgun was a 12-gauge, which police determined from the size of the shot cup that held the shot pellets; the shot cup was recovered at the apartment. The 12-gauge shotgun is one of the most powerful gauges of shotgun, Scott said, and would have been “almost uncontrollable.” Scott added that depending on a person's strength and other attributes, it could be possible to wield the sawed-off shotgun with one hand, “but it would be extremely difficult.” “I can't say it's impossible,” Scott said, but “… even if it were me or someone who was very strong, to shoot a shotgun like that is difficult.” Bryan S. Williams, a firearms trainer, said that it is possible to fire a shotgun with one hand. However, given Watkins' injury, “I would suspect that he would need two hands to wield it,” he said. “His ability to drag somebody around while holding it, Iʼm having a bit of hesitation with that.” Watkins praised his public defenders for representing him well but said that he wished they had brought up his arm injury during the trial. He recalled telling one of his public defenders, “A one-armed man can't use a shotgun, miss.” Sabow, the neurologist, said, “It would have been easy to obtain an expert to testify to


the difficulty and possibly even close to the impossibility” of Watkins committing the crime as described by Willis in court testimony. In an interview for this article, Piemonte, one of Watkinsʼ public defenders, said she reviewed Watkins' medical records “to see if there was any avenue of defense.” She said she spoke to the surgeons who operated on his arm and others cited in the medical records but did not have an outside medical expert examine them. She said she can't remember what the surgeons told her, except that it wasn't helpful to Watkinsʼ defense because otherwise she would have used it. She also said that she believed she spoke to the detectives who investigated Watkins' case. Contradictions

Verlisha Willis was the star eyewitness in Watkinsʼ trial. Her versions of what occurred on the night Alfred Curry was killed are riddled with inconsistencies. Lara Takenaga/Medill

Willis was the only eyewitness to identify Watkins immediately after the crime. At the time of Curryʼs death, Willis was regularly taking heroin in the morning, supplemented by daily beer drinking and, occasionally, by crack cocaine, according to her testimony. She said then that she had imbibed a 40-ounce bottle of beer but was not impaired at the time of the murder. Willisʼ mother, Lucille Williams, said in an interview for this article that Curryʼs death was hard on Willis. Now 40 years old, Willis said in an interview for this article that she has had trouble coping since his murder. “I didnʼt have no [sic] family anymore,” Willis said. “He paid all the bills, so I lost the apartment. In 15 minutes I lost everything.” Willisʼ version of events featured a number of inconsistencies, according to court transcripts, internal police records and interviews for this article. For example:


In one of her interviews with police and during her trial testimony, Willis said that Curry was in the bedroom watching a movie when Watkins broke in and shot him. But in an interview for this article, Willis said Curry went to the grocery store and came back with two bags. She said Watkins followed Curry back from the store. When Curry was unlocking the back door, she said that Watkins pressed a sawedoff shotgun against Curry. She then said Watkins demanded money and took Curry into the bedroom, where Curry flinched, or made some kind of movement, which set the gun off. Asked about the discrepancy in a subsequent interview for this story, she said she didnʼt know if Watkins followed Curry home from the grocery store. Willis did not mention seeing her daughter when Willis entered the bedroom, according to police records obtained for this article. Willis said that she was screaming and struggling with Watkins. But in an interview for this article, Willis described how Curry's brain landed in Melissa's lap and her daughter said, “You gonna kill my momma, too?” Asked about the discrepancy, Willis said that she “probably wasnʼt thinking” about Melissa being in the room when Willis was speaking with police. In two police interviews and at trial, Willis said that she was heading back to the rear of the apartment when Watkins confronted her with the shotgun. At trial, one of Watkinsʼ public defenders confronted Willis, saying Willis contradicted herself about where Watkins emerged—from the bathroom, or from behind a wall. In an interview for this article, Willis said Watkins came to the front of the apartment in the living room to grab her and pull her into the bedroom. She said in a subsequent interview for this article that Watkins grabbed her from behind a wall in the kitchen. In an interview for this article, Willis said Watkins threatened her but only had one shell in his shotgun. Willis did not mention this in court. The shotgun was never recovered. In a subsequent interview for this article, she said she didnʼt know how many shells were in the weapon. In her first interview at the police station after the crime, Willis said Watkins removed what she then described as a ski mask to readjust it, and she said she recognized him as Speedy. In her second police interview at the station, she said that while she struggled against Watkins, the mask, which she described as a knit cap, shifted to reveal his face. But in two separate interviews for this article, Willis said that while she was struggling against Watkins, blood and brains covered the eyeholes of his skullcap, so he had to take it off to see.


In her first interview at the police station, Willis said that just after the shooting, she ran to Personal Liquors on West North Avenue to call police. While she was there, she said she told customers that Curry had been shot; as she was waiting, she said she waved down a passing police car. At trial, Willis said Watkins chased her through the nearby Walgreens parking lot until she ran out onto the middle of the street screaming and flagged down police without reaching the liquor store. When asked about this discrepancy, she confirmed the basic details of her testimony. In police interviews, Willis made no mention of seeing her daughter when Willis entered the bedroom, according to police records obtained for this article. At trial, Willis said that as she was fleeing the apartment, she turned to try to call to Melissa and urge her daughter to jump out the second-floor window to escape. But Willis said she was unable to call out to her daughter because Watkins was right behind Willis. In an interview for this article, she said that she looked at her daughter, glanced at the window and then ran. From Willis' cues, she said Melissa knew to jump out the window. Willis then said her 7-year-old daughter, while in her sleeping gown, jumped out of the second-story window and ran to the Walgreens parking lot, where Willis scooped her up. In that same interview, Willis changed her story, saying that she and her daughter left the apartment together. A police officer who was at the scene that night testified that Melissa was on the bed when he and his partner arrived. Asked about this discrepancy, Willis said Melissa returned to the apartment before police picked her up. Willis strained to recollect other basic facts. For instance, at the 2007 trial, Willis said she was 35 years old. She was 36. When asked about the mix up, she said in an interview for this story, â&#x20AC;&#x153;I always get that confused. My kids have to tell me how old I am.â&#x20AC;? In a police interview, Willis said she had been with Curry for 13 years. At trial, she said they had been together for 10 years. In an interview for this article, Willis said her daughter was 4 years old at the time of the murder. Melissa was 7 years old. In grand jury testimony, Willis said she knew Thorne for six years. At trial, she said they had known each other for a couple of months. << Back Source URL: http://www.medillinnocenceproject.org/donwatkins4

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Medill Investigation One key source of recovered physical evidence was blood, which was “strewn on the ceiling, floor, walls, door and [on the] bed was a considerable quantity of blood, bone and brain matter,” according to police reports. Willis has consistently described a struggle in which Watkins held Willis while also wielding the shotgun, according to police reports and court transcripts. At one point during the struggle, she said Watkins stepped on Curry's bloody body. In 2004, Verlisha Willis was living in apartment 206 at 1546 N. During the trial she said, “He grabbed me in my Parkside Ave. with her boyfriend, Alfred Curry. According to collar of my shirt, and he was walking back and police records, she said Watkins grabbed her by the collar after killing Curry and slung her about the apartmentʼs forth in the room, walking on Al [Curry], slinging bedroom. Taylor Soppe/Medill me all over the bedroom.” And then after dragging her into the living room, “he took the gun off of me, and he put it in Maurice [Thorne]—in his mouth or face, whichever,” Willis testified. It is unclear, given Willis' account, why only two bloody footprints were found, according to evidence submitted for trial. In an interview for this article, eyewitness expert Gary Wells said he is disturbed that, according to police reports, just after the crime, Willis was initially shown a single photo of Watkins before looking at a photo array or lineup. At that time, Willis was only able to identify Watkins by his nickname, Speedy, and said she had seen him in the same building a week earlier attempting to collect a $10 narcotics debt. Wells said that when police first showed Willis a photo of Watkins, it may have merely served to confirm whom the police believed to be the suspect. Wells said it would have been better independent verification if police had given Willis the opportunity to identify the shooter out of a series of photos of different possible suspects. “There still should have been some kind of real test,” Wells said. “Include photos of people who did not go by that nickname but had the same general description.” Wells said this would have been a better way of finding out whether Willis saw the assailantʼs face. Wells also said witnesses might remember whom they identified to police and not necessarily whom they actually saw when the crime was committed. Wells, a


professor of psychology at Iowa State University who has been conducting research on eyewitness identification for more than 30 years, works with prosecutors and police nationwide to reform eyewitness identification procedures. Daniel Langleben, an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania who specializes in addictions, said that any long-term substance abuse can be problematic when an acknowledged drug addict identifies a suspect. At the trial, Willis said she was not high or facing withdrawal when she identified Watkins as the killer; she testified that she took heroin between 9 a.m. and noon daily. In an interview for this article, Willis said she snorted a line of heroin moments before the shooting. “I cannot estimate how ʻpowerfulʼ that was, however this would be enough to impair her cognitive abilities across the board for the next 5-30 min.,” Langleben said in an email. Willis said that was her first line of heroin that day; she said she normally did six lines, or $20 worth, of heroin a day. “A person who has just taken a hit of heroin is not perfectly alert,” Langleben said in an interview for this article. “There is a significant reduction in the ability to notice events around her. It has an effect on being aware of your environment. Imagine if she had just taken a big drink of vodka and then a hit of pot. That's what it would be like.” Willisʼ sustained alcohol use could have further marred her memory, he said. The only other witness to identify Watkins as the shooter was Willisʼ daughter, Melissa. Police said they found the 7-year-old in a state of shock. In her first interview with police at the station, Melissa said she saw the offender pull up his mask, and she recognized him from a week earlier when he came to the apartment building to collect a debt. In a later police interview, Melissa said that the intruder lifted the mask over his face while he searched the bedroom for money. Melissa, however, could not identify Watkins in the photo array or lineup. In another police interview, Melissa said the man “moved the mask on his face,” but she couldn't see his face because it was dark. At trial, nearly three years later, Melissa referred to the intruder by the nickname Spanky. Watkins went by the name Speedy. When prosecutors asked Melissa whom she saw on the night of the murder, Melissa pointed at Watkins in court. This revelation shocked Watkinsʼ defense attorneys, who argued that the prosecution never warned them, as required, that Melissa would be making an in-court identification of the killer. Illinois Supreme Court rules require the state to disclose the content of any statements “within its possession or control” of witnesses it intends to call. Prosecutors countered by saying they were unaware that Melissa would identify the killer. However, during


cross-examination, Melissa said prosecutors had told her, before she testified, where Spanky would be sitting and told her to point him out if she saw him. The public defenders made a motion for a mistrial, arguing that Melissaʼs in-court identification of Watkins should have been disclosed prior to the trial. The motion was denied, and Watkins made no headway on the issue when he appealed. Lucille Williams, who said she raised Melissa, declined to make her granddaughter available for comment. Wells, the eyewitness expert, said that such an identification is difficult to believe given that Melissa did not identify Watkins in a photo array or lineup immediately after the crime. “The only test that was done, she failed,” Wells said. Thorne, the only other witness to the crime, consistently recalled seeing two men in the apartment, each armed with a gun. In his first interview at the police station, Thorne said when he heard the back door being kicked in, he jumped out the window onto the landing to hide. He said he heard one or two people demanding money and drugs, but continued to hide until Willis began yelling his name. Thinking it was a police raid, Thorne approached the window with his hands raised and saw a man pointing a shotgun at him. Thorne said he backed away from the window and lost sight of the first man, but moments later saw a second man, also armed with a gun. Jury struggles At the trial, which opened Sept. 26, 2007, the jurors spent about 14 hours debating the evidence. Watkins said in an interview for this article that he did not take the stand because he was concerned that prosecutors would have grilled him about his lengthy record of past convictions. Part of the juryʼs initial questions centered on the two bloody footprints in Curryʼs kitchen and the impression on the apartmentʼs kicked-in back door, according to Laura King, who said in an interview for this article that she was the third-to-last juror to be convinced of Watkinsʼ guilt. In one of six handwritten notes sent to Judge James Schreier, the jurors asked for clarification about what size shoe left the footprint on the white kitchen tile. Schreier wrote back that there wasnʼt any testimony about the shoe size for the footprint in question. A forensic expert testified that the footprint was not made by a pair of shoes taken from Watkins after his arrest but did not say what size shoe left the impression. King said she wished the jurors had known the sizes of the shoe prints on the floor and the back door and whether they matched each other. Without that information, it was difficult for the jurors to determine whether the same person who kicked in the door also stepped in Curryʼs blood and then left footprints on the kitchen floor, she said.


After deliberating for about eight hours on the first day, half of the jurors werenʼt convinced that Watkins was guilty. “Your honor we have deliberated and still are locked 6-6 in multiple votes,” the jury wrote in a note sent to Schreier at about 11 p.m.

The jury sent Judge James Schreier a note after about eight hours of deliberations to say it was deadlocked. Court records

Several jurors said their conclusion that Watkins was guilty came down to the credibility of the prosecutionʼs eyewitnesses: Willis and her daughter, Melissa. Willisʼ testimony was so crucial that on the second day of deliberations, several jurors said the group focused much of its discussion on whether a drug addict could accurately perceive a crime. King, a 49-year-old Lansing, Ill., resident, said she discounted Melissaʼs testimony because she was so young when she witnessed the murder. King also said she believes that the girl would have been so traumatized after witnessing the crime that she wouldnʼt have been able to accurately identify Curryʼs killer. During the last hour of deliberations, King said the jurors went back and forth, and “one by one, we changed our views.” Until the final hour of deliberations, several jurors said the group was still struggling to reach a unanimous verdict as they continued to question the credibility of the key witnesses and whether Watkins committed the crime. In the end, the jurors concluded that Willis was a reliable witness. At 4:40 p.m., on Sept. 28, 2007, the judge read the verdict: Watkins was guilty of home invasion and first-degree murder. At the age of 47 he was sentenced to 56 years in prison.


â&#x20AC;&#x153;I wanted to die because I knew my life was over with,â&#x20AC;? Watkins said in an interview for this article. Watkins is projected to be released from prison on Nov. 21, 2061, when he would be 101 years old. This investigation was conducted by six undergraduate students at Medill as part of an investigative journalism class taught by Northwestern University Professor Alec Klein, director of the Medill Innocence Project, which supported the class work. Sergio Serritella, a licensed private detective who assists the investigative journalism class at Medill, contributed to this report. Serritella, in his previous capacity as a legislative aide for public safety to a then Illinois state senator, has worked with several law-enforcement officials, including Chicago Police Detective Steve Soria, who helped to investigate the Curry murder. Serritella and Soria did not have any contact as part of the reporting of this article. << Back Source URL: http://www.medillinnocenceproject.org/donwatkins5

Medill Innocence Project Investigation  

Article written spring 2011 for Medill Innocence Project

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