In 1978, Kenneth Adams, along with three other men who are collectively now known as the “Ford Heights Four”, was wrongly convicted of rape and double homicide. Adams was sentenced to 75 years in prison; it took 18 years for DNA testing to exonerate him.
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In May 1978, a recently engaged couple was abducted from a filling station close to where the man worked. The bodies of the couple were found the next day in an abandoned town house in East Chicago Heights (now Ford Heights). Both victims had been shot, and the female victim had been gang-raped.
Investigation and Trial
A false tip from a man who lived near the crime scene lead to the arrest of four men – Verneal Jimmerson, Dennis Williams, Kenneth Adams, and Willie Rainge. In addition, Paula Gray, Adams’ girlfriend who could neither read nor write, was brought into the police station for questioning.
After being held without legal counsel for a couple of days, Gray confessed to a grand jury that she had been present while the four men had raped the female victim. She also stated that she saw Dennis Williams shoot both victims. A month later, Gray recanted her story at a preliminary hearing, stating that she had been drugged and police had simply told her what to say. The charges against Jimerson were dropped, but Gray was then charged with murder and perjury.
The three remaining men were tried together, and a jailhouse informant testified that he had overheard two of the defendants admitting their guilt. The state also presented eyewitness testimony placing Williams, Adams, and Rainge near the scene of the crime at the time of the rape and murders. However, there was a major timing inconsistency in the witness’ account, but Archie Weston, their attorney, failed to point this out to the jury.
Further, a state expert improperly testified that hair found in Williams’ car “matched” the victims’ hair, stating: “It’s just like if you drop two dollar bills and you see dollar bills on the floor. You see two one dollar bills. It’s obvious.” Because there is no substantial empirical data on the frequency of various characteristics of human hair, it is impossible to say definitively that strands of hair “match” a particular person. Finally, there was also incorrect serology testimony during the trial. Again, Weston did not point out the false testimony in either situation.
Despite any real evidence pointing to their guilt, all four defendants (Gray had a separate trial) were convicted: Williams was sentenced to death, Rainge to life in prison, Adams to 75 years, and Gray to 50 years.
The convictions were affirmed on appeal, but Williams and Rainge then won new trials. Gray, who had been convicted as an accomplice and for perjury after her recantation, reverted to her original story and testified against Williams and Jimerson to gain her own release from prison. The charges against Jimerson were also refiled and both he and Williams were convicted and sentenced to death; Rainge was convicted to life in prison again.
Archie Weston would later admit during a hearing in a different case that he was so stressed during the trial of Williams, Adams, and Rainge that he couldn't think straight. He was disbarred for fraud committed in another case.
In 1994, the jailhouse informant recanted his testimony, stating that he had lied about overhearing Williams and Rainge discussing how they committed the murder because prosecutors offered him a deal on the charges he was facing at the time.
With the help of David Protess, Rob Warden, and a team of journalism students from Northwestern University, the four men gained access to evidence for DNA testing. In 1996, DNA testing exonerated all four men and implicated three other men, two of whom confessed and pleaded guilty to the crimes in 1997. They also discovered that the police had been tipped to the identity of the actual perpetrators early on in the investigation, but did not pursue the lead.
Life after Exoneration
In 1999, the Ford Heights Four settled civil claims for $36 million against the police officers involved in the original investigation. It was the largest civil rights payment in United States history. Adams’ share of the settlement was $8 million.
Adams now lives with his wife in a south suburban Chicago area.