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Reinvestigating A Crime

Medill students’ investigation raises questions about a Chicago murder conviction

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June 7, 2011 | by Wendy Leopold

EVANSTON, Ill. --- An article with new evidence calling into question the murder conviction of a Chicago man serving 56 years in prison appears today (June 7) on Northwestern University’s Medill Innocence Project website at http://www.medillinnocenceproject.org.

The groundbreaking investigative story about Donald Watkins and the 2004 murder for which he was convicted is the work of six Northwestern University undergraduates in a Medill investigative journalism class. Supported by the Medill Innocence Project, the class is taught by award-winning investigative reporter and Medill Professor Alec Klein, formerly of The Washington Post.

During a just-ended, 10-week academic term, seniors Alex Campbell, Jared Hoffman, Caitlin Kearney, Monica Kim, Taylor Soppe and Lara Takenaga tracked down and interviewed key sources. These included the prosecution’s star eyewitness to the crime and experts in the fields of forensic pathology, orthopedics and neurology, firearms, eyewitness identification and addiction psychiatry.

The six students, who all will graduate from Northwestern June 17, also interviewed Watkins’ family, friends and neighbors, members of the victim’s family, and jurors and attorneys involved in the case. 

In addition, the students based their reporting on seven Freedom of Information Act requests, court records, internal police records, prison documents and medical records obtained from the Chicago Fire Department, John H. Stroger Jr. Hospital and Fantus Health Center.

Among their findings: 

• Watkins had been shot in the left arm in 2003, nearly two years before the murder of Alfred Curry, for which Watkins was convicted. Watkins’ life-threatening injury required four blood transfusions, as well as physical therapy to treat significant nerve damage near his elbow, according to his medical records, which the students obtained. 

• Watkins’ injury casts doubt on whether he could have been physically capable of committing the murder, in which the assailant wielded a sawed-off shotgun while dragging a woman by her collar. Yet the injury was never brought up at trial.

• Only two witnesses identified Watkins as the killer: Verlisha Willis -- Curry’s girlfriend and a known heroin addict who went to the hospital twice for withdrawal hours after the shooting -- and Willis’ seven-year-old daughter. After the students found Willis selling cigarettes on a street a couple of blocks from the crime scene, she gave numerous contradictory accounts of the crime. She testified that she had not used drugs the night of the crime. But she told the students that she in fact snorted a line of heroin moments before the murder. Willis’ daughter, who did not identify Watkins in a photo array or police lineup immediately following the shooting, identified him in court three years later as a man nicknamed “Spanky” whom she had seen around her building. Watkins’s nickname was “Speedy,” not Spanky. 

• The only other witness to the crime, Maurice Thorne, testified that there were two assailants, and did not identify Watkins as either.

• There was no physical evidence linking Watkins to the crime; bloody footprints at the crime scene did not match Watkins’ shoes obtained after his arrest. 

• According to internal police records obtained by the students through a Freedom of Information Act request, Watkins allegedly confessed to the crime while being held by police, though the confession was never recorded by video, audio recording or in a signed statement. However, the students found that details included in the alleged confession do not match the facts established by authorities. For example, Watkins allegedly said that Curry let him into the apartment, though physical evidence indicated the back door was kicked in. When interviewed by the students, Watkins said he never confessed and that police handcuffed him to a pole attached to the wall, punched him in the stomach and put a plastic bag over his head. Watkins’ alleged confession was never raised at the trial. Police and prosecutors declined repeated requests for an interview.

• In interviews with jurors, the students also learned that the trial nearly resulted in a hung jury; after eight hours of deliberation, the jury remained deadlocked at the end of their first day, and three jurors still weren’t sure of Watkins’ culpability until about an hour before they issued a guilty verdict.

The students also have written a story-behind-the-story detailing how they conducted their reporting and another story about the origins of their investigation. Both are being published today on the Medill Innocence Project website.

Also being made available on the Medill Innocence Project website are thousands of pages of documents -- court, medical and police records -- that the students obtained as part of their investigation. 

The Medill Innocence Project was founded in 1999. Sergio Serritella, a licensed private detective who assists the investigative journalism class at Medill, contributed to the students’ report.

For more information, contact Northwestern Professor Klein, director of the Medill Innocence Project, at (847) 467-4476 (office), (847) 975-5509 (cell) or e-mail alec-klein@northwestern.edu