'Flat-out lied': Ex-Gurnee man imprisoned 29 years on bad conviction sues police, prosecutors

Herman Williams spent almost three decades in prison after being wrongfully convicted of his former wife's 1993 murder.

Now the former Gurnee resident and Gulf War veteran is seeking what he believes would be a measure of justice for those he says conspired to put him there.

Williams this week filed a federal lawsuit against nine former law enforcement officers, a pair of former prosecutors and a deceased pathologist, along with several Lake County communities. It alleges they fabricated a confession, manufactured some evidence and kept other evidence secret because it would have cleared him of the killing.

He also claims police officers gave false testimony to advance their careers.

"It was like a nightmare that didn't end," Williams said during a Thursday news conference.

His suit seeks unspecified compensatory and punitive damages. Among its strongest claims is that investigators coerced witnesses to change their testimony to implicate Williams and presented a false timeline because the real one would have excluded him as a suspect.

"These are gutless and heartless human beings that did this to Herman," attorney Tony Romanucci said Thursday. "They flat-out lied."

Williams was convicted in 1994 of killing ex-wife Penny Williams. Her battered body was found in a pond near Midlane Country Club in Wadsworth on Sept. 26, 1993. She had recently moved back to the area with their two children, and they stayed with Williams in Gurnee.

At trial, prosecutors argued that Williams killed his former wife so he could take their children to California, where he was being transferred from his post at Naval Station Great Lakes. They claimed blood matching Penny Williams' type was found in her ex-husband's pickup truck and her purse was found in a trash bin near the home of his second wife.

But a new round of DNA testing in 2021 determined that biological material found under Penny Williams' fingernails did not belong to her or her former husband. It also showed that the blood found in Herman's truck did not belong to Penny.

Presented with the new evidence, Lake County State's Attorney Eric Rinehart supported a petition last year to vacate the conviction. A Lake County judge did so in September.

"Every conviction must have integrity; it must be grounded in science and in fact, and it must be the product of a fair police investigation and trial," Rinehart said in a statement in September. "Because of deeply erroneous scientific evidence, new DNA results, and a faulty trial, our office was compelled to agree to Mr. Williams' release. While we acknowledge that Mr. Williams is gaining his freedom due to overwhelming new evidence that calls into question the verdict, we know that the victim's family is suffering to understand how so many mistakes could have been made nearly 30 years ago."

Williams' suit seeks unspecified monetary damages, but on Thursday he sounded like a man wanting to restore his reputation more than his bank account. He noted how after serving proudly in the U.S. Navy - including two tours during the Gulf War - his career ended with a bad-conduct discharge.

"All that was taken away from me, and I ended up a (prison) number," he said.

Now out of prison and living out of state, Williams said Thursday he also is focused on rebuilding his relationship with his children, who were 6 and 3 years old when their mother was killed.

$7.5M verdict stands

Was a jury too generous when it awarded a DuPage County sheriff's deputy $7.5 million for injuries he suffered during a 2014 training accident?

David Hakim

A federal appeals court answered with a definitive "no" on Tuesday, rejecting a law-enforcement equipment manufacturer's request it throw out the verdict and order a new trial.

The case stemmed from injuries David Hakim, then a team leader on the sheriff's special-operations team, sustained while taking part in SWAT training at a vacant home in Hinsdale.

According to his lawsuit, a breaching round - a special type of ammunition used to break through a door - failed to disintegrate on impact as it should have during the training exercise. Instead, it went through a door and stair-riser before piercing Hakim's spine.

Hakim underwent multiple surgeries during a 13-month recovery period and eventually was able to return to the sheriff's office, but the incident left him with permanent pain and injuries. That evidence of pain and suffering weighed heavily in the jury's decision, the court ruled in rejecting the appeal from Florida-based manufacturer Safariland LLC.

"His pain is often so severe that he can only sleep four to five hours a night," Judge John Z. Lee wrote. "Based on this evidence, the jury's award of $7.5 million, while perhaps on the high side, was not unreasonable or unfair."

Raoul joins gunfight

Speaking of federal courts, Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul has joined with his peers in 22 other states in urging the U.S. Supreme Court to uphold laws preventing a person from having a gun while subject to a restraining order for domestic abuse.

Earlier this year, a federal appeals court in Louisiana said such laws violate the Second Amendment. The decision involved the case of a Texas man who was charged with illegally possessing firearms in 2020, after his ex-girlfriend accused him of assaulting her and obtained a restraining order.

The Supreme Court in June agreed to take on the case and is expected to hear arguments this fall.

Raoul, who filed a brief with the Supreme Court this week, said the Louisiana court's ruling puts domestic violence victims at further risk of being harmed or killed by their abusers.

"Guns are the leading cause of intimate partner homicides, and policymakers have a vested interest in keeping guns out of the hands of those with a known history of violence," he said.

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