Following new DNA evidence, a Lake County judge exonerated a Gurnee man who has been serving a life sentence after being convicted 29 years ago of murdering his ex-wife.
Herman Williams, 58, of Gurnee, was convicted by a jury in 1994 of first-degree murder.
William’s ex-wife, Penny Williams, 27, was found dead in a pond in Waukegan on September 22, 1993, days after she had gone missing.
Her death was determined to be from blunt force trauma.
The Chicago Tribune reported at the time of Williams’ conviction that he gave a 15-minute speech before his sentencing attacking his defense attorney, the jury, prosecutors and the Lake County Major Crime Task Force.
Williams said that he was the victim of malicious prosecution and inadequate defense.
He was sentenced to natural life in prison by Lake County Judge Charles Scott.
On Tuesday, prosecutors with the Lake County State’s Attorney’s Office and defense attorneys for Williams presented agreed orders to a Lake County judge to vacate the man’s conviction.
Prosecutors, citing “scientifically unsupported evidence” presented during the trial and new DNA results, said they no longer had faith in the original verdict.
“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. Because of deeply erroneous scientific evidence, new DNA results, and a faulty trial, our office was compelled to agree to Mr. Williams’ release,” Lake County State’s Attorney Eric Rinehart said.
“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,” Rinehart said.
Williams, who has been in an Illinois Department of Corrections prison since his sentencing, was in court Tuesday during the hearing in front of Lake County Judge Mark Levitt.
Kevin Malia, the chief of the Lake County State’s Attorney’s Office Conviction Integrity Unit, said that two separate forensic pathologists agreed that the trial jury heard “scientifically unsupported” evidence regarding the time that Penny Williams died.
According to documents filed in July, Lake County Forensic Pathologist Dr. Eimad Zakariya and defense-retained expert Dr. James Filkins both agreed that the original trial expert, Dr. Nancy Jones, had wrongly narrowed the date of death to a few hours between the night of September 22, 1993, and September 23, 1993.
The jury was told that these hours were the only possible window of death.
Zakariya and Filkins dispute that and say the time of death was much closer to the time when the body was recovered on September 26, 1993.
Zakariya and Filkins said that Jones’ opinion given at trial had no scientific basis.
Prosecutors said that they learned Jones had given a different opinion in 1993 that expanded the possible window of death but that her opinion had not been tendered to the defense prior to trial.
The state’s attorney’s office said new DNA testing conducted in 2021 showed that Williams was excluded from being the source of the male DNA found under Penny Williams’ fingernails at the time of her autopsy.
The new DNA results also disputed what trial prosecutors argued to the jury in 1994 that Penny Williams was not actually the source of a small amount of blood recovered in Herman Williams’s vehicle, according to the state’s attorney’s office.
Levitt granted the request from prosecutors and the defense to vacate Williams’ conviction.
“This is a sad and difficult day in Lake County. We will continue to support the family and investigate the DNA evidence that has been recovered. We will coordinate with law enforcement and state forensic labs to determine what leads we can follow from the new evidence,” Rinehart said.
“Our job is to fight for the victim no matter how long it takes. But we must also take from today a renewed commitment to making sure that all evidence is turned over to the defense and that our government experts use the most thorough methods in reaching their conclusions and explaining them to jury,” Rinehart said.
The state’s attorney said his office’s new conviction integrity unit is analyzing and investigating several other past cases for possible wrongful convictions.
Illinois Innocence Project Co-Director Lauren Kaeseberg, who is Williams’ attorney, said he “lost nearly three decades of his life, and his children had to grow up thinking their own father killed their mother — because of the misconduct and faulty forensics that plagued this case.”
“We have to push for more accountability and transparency among law enforcement and prosecutors to prevent more families being torn apart by wrongful conviction,” Kaeseberg said.