The Center on Wrongful Convictions will host the Chicago premiere of a new A & E documentary about the capital case of Darnell Williams, “Countdown to an Execution,” at 3 p.m. Wednesday, March 2, at the Northwestern University School of Law.
After the screening, former Indiana Gov. Joe Kernan will discuss his concerns about the way the state administers the death penalty and reviews capital cases. Following his talk, a panel discussion will feature Juliet Yackel, who has been working on Williams’ case since she graduated from law school and at the eleventh hour came to the Center on Wrongful for Convictions for assistance in saving her client’s life. The panel will also feature lead prosecutor Thomas Vanes and Northwestern University law students who helped save Williams' life.
The panel will be moderated by award-winning journalist Bill Kurtis, host of American Justice and author of “The Death Penalty on Trial: Crisis in American Justice.”
The special screening of American Justice’s “Countdown to an Execution” is free and open to the public and will take place at the School of Law’s Thorne Auditorium, 375 E. Chicago Ave. The documentary will be broadcast by A & E March 16.
Produced by Towers Productions, Inc., the show captures the drama of events leading up to Gov. Kernan’s decision to commute Williams's sentence to life without parole, five days before his scheduled execution.
“Darnell Williams was the first person to have a death sentence commuted in Indiana in 48 years, and his was the first case for which the state parole board recommended clemency,” said Edwin Colfax, director of the Death Penalty Education Project at the Center on Wrongful Convictions. "Gov. Kernan, who supports the death penalty, got a close look at how the system works and left office convinced that we need more serious safeguards if the state is going to stay in the business of putting people to death.”
The Willams case gained national attention when the trial prosecutor and a former juror supported Williams in his effort to obtain DNA testing and urged that his death sentence be vacated when the DNA results were exculpatory.
One of the key witnesses against Williams, who was granted a reduced sentence for his cooperation with the state, recanted his testimony right before the execution date. The Center on Wrongful Convictions has found that reliance on accomplice testimony is a key contributor to wrongful convictions throughout the United States.
“Cleary when witnesses have every reason to tell prosecutors what they want to hear, credibility goes out the window,” said Center for Wrongful Convictions Executive Director Rob Warden. “We need much higher standards of certainty when the death penalty is on the table. That includes recognizing that clemency is an integral part of the system. More governors need to have the confidence to grant clemency when confronted with doubts and unreliable forms of evidence in death penalty cases.”