A former Gurnee man who was exonerated last year in the murder of his ex-wife after serving nearly 29 years in prison is filing a lawsuit against Lake County officials.
Herman Williams, formerly 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.
In September, 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 at the time.
“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.
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 2022, 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 disputed that and said 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.
Lake County Judge Mark Levitt granted the request from prosecutors and the defense to vacate Williams’ conviction during the September court hearing.
Illinois Innocence Project Co-Director Lauren Kaeseberg, who represented Williams, 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.
On Wednesday, Chicago-based law firms Romanucci and Blandin along with Hart McLaughlin and Eldridge announced they are filing a civil lawsuit on behalf of Williams.
“Herman’s wrongful conviction was the result of a fabricated confession, manufactured and concealed evidence, and false testimony by law enforcement, by public servants who abandoned their professional and ethical obligations to falsely acquire this conviction to advance their careers,” the firms said in a statement.
Williams, now 59, spent nearly 29 years incarcerated until he was released last year following his exoneration.
His attorneys say they will be holding a press conference Thursday afternoon to discuss the lawsuit.