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
By Alex Campbell, Jared Hoffman, Caitlin Kearney, Monica Kim, Taylor Soppe and Lara Takenaga
Medill Innocence Project
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 Chicago’s West Side. The prosecution’s 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 Watkins’ case by six students of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism has uncovered several key facts that raise questions about his conviction, according to interviews with the prosecution’s star eyewitness, experts in the fields of forensic pathology, orthopedics and neurology, firearms, eyewitness identification and addiction psychiatry, Watkins’ family, friends and neighbors, the victim’s 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.
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 didn’t 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 Watkins’ injury.
- Verlisha Willis was the prosecution’s 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, Willis’ 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. Watkins’ 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 Watkins’ shoes taken from him when he was arrested. The jurors were deadlocked at the end of their first day of deliberations. Three jurors still weren’t sure of Watkins’ guilt until about one hour before they finally found him guilty.
Watkins’ conviction so bothered a veteran court reporter while she was transcribing the trial proceedings that she pleaded with a law professor who also is a former police officer to look into the case of Watkins whom she believes to be 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 “post-conviction 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.