Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Remembering a Death Row Exoneree

"Dennis Williams, a former death-row inmate whose exoneration became a rallying cry for opponents of the death penalty in Illinois, died on Thursday at his home. He was 46. An autopsy has not yet been performed..." -- The New York Times: March 25, 2003

To outsiders a decade ago this month, Dennis Williams had it all. He was vibrant and gregarious, with a sharp wit and infectious laugh. Women were drawn to him, and his latest "fiancee," Alicia, was as bright as she was beautiful.

And, there was the stuff: a $500,000 spacious home in south suburban Flossmoor and a garage filled with toys, including a Ford Mustang Shelby, a Toyota Land Cruiser and a GMC Yukon. He was often spotted on his Honda Shadow motorcycle, occasionally stopping to chat with neighbors. Living nearby was his best friend since high school, Kenneth Adams, and his wife Norma, both frequent guests at the Williams residence.

It appeared on the surface that life was good for a man who had spent 18 years on death row.

The money had not softened Williams' resolve to campaign against the death penalty and reform the criminal justice system -- "more criminal than just," he quipped. His charisma made him a popular speaker at abolitionist rallies and before legislative bodies.

Away from audiences, however, Williams was suffering. His inner world was increasingly dominated by fears and suspicions. He was haunted by flashbacks to life in a 6' by 10' cell near the death chamber and the ghosts of friends lost to the executioner.

A visitor to Williams' home found it dimly lit, partly to conceal cameras he believed would record intruding cops or acts of infidelity. His travels were limited by a fear of flying caused by an obsession that prosecutors would blow up the plane.

As Williams spoke about his unraveling life, he restlessly paced, as if still caged. Chain-smoking menthols, ashtrays rapidly filling, he was never far from a bottle of malt liquor. Drinking calmed him, Williams said, and helped with fitful sleep, a constant issue since his brother died in a garage fire the previous year. Unable to concentrate, he ceased oil painting, a creative outlet that also settled him. Now his only pleasures were talking into the night with best friend Adams and "bolting out" on his Honda bike.


Source: David Protess, Huff Post, March 4, 2013. David Protess co-authored a book with Rob Warden about the "Ford Heights Four case, A Promise of Justice: The Eighteen-Year Fight to Save Four Innocent Men."