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Illinois Innocence Project helps win release of wrongfully convicted Lake County man

Herman Williams celebrates after his release.
Ray Abercrombie for the Innocence Project
Herman Williams celebrates after his release.

Illinois Innocence Project lawyers Tuesday won the exoneration and release of a Lake County man who had served nearly three decades for a murder he did not commit.

Navy veteran Herman Williams, now 58 years old, was wrongfully convicted for the 1993 murder of his ex-wife in Waukegan, where he was stationed at the time, according to the Illinois Innocence Project, which is based at the University of Illinois Springfield.

Williams, who lived in Gurnee at the time of his conviction, was released today from Sheridan Correctional Center. He had been serving a sentence of life without parole after a first-degree murder conviction. Williams’ conviction was vacated by agreement of the Lake County State’s Attorney’s Office, which dismissed all charges against him.

Williams’ ex-wife, Penny Williams, was found in a shallow pond in Waukegan several days after her disappearance. She died as a result of blunt force trauma and defensive wounds, according to the IIP.

According to the project, “The Lake County State’s Attorney’s Office acknowledged that (Williams’) 1994 conviction was based on scientifically unsupported forensic pathology testimony regarding the victim’s time of death, that the prosecution hid favorable evidence at his original trial and that the detective who claimed ... Williams confessed is now known to have engaged misconduct, including securing false confessions and fabricating admissions of guilt in other cases. New evidence also includes advanced DNA testing that excludes Herman Williams from biological evidence.”

“What makes the case just so much more …horrific and terrible is that there were two little children at the time who lost not only their mother due to this horrible crime, but their father was also taken from them, when the state wrongfully prosecuted and convicted him of her murder," said Lauren Kaeseberg, attorney at the Illinois Innocence Project. “It's been 30 years. Those children at the time were just 3 and 6 years old and are now… grown adults and Mr. Williams will have a long path towards reconciling with his children.”

“And we're just so glad that today they can know the truth, which is that he had nothing to do with the murder of Penny Williams. And now that he's free and has control over his life again,, he'll be able to work towards building a strong relationship with his children who he loves very much.”

“DNA testing completed in 2021 and performed on biological material collected from under Ms. Williams’ fingernails during the autopsy — which was significant because she had clearly struggled with her attacker — revealed male DNA that does not belong to Mr. Williams. Further DNA testing also demonstrated that small amounts of blood from Mr. Williams’ truck — which the State used to link to Ms. Williams through now-outdated blood typing — does not, in fact, belong to her,’’ according to the project.

Meanwhile, “time of death was a critical issue in this case. Ms. Williams’ body was found on the afternoon of Sunday, Sept. 26, 1993. The State contended that Ms. Williams was murdered on the night of Wednesday, Sept. 22 — essentially the only time period in which Mr. Williams could feasibly have committed the crime. Mr. Williams’ whereabouts were accounted for.”

According to the project, “ a pair of forensic pathologists who reviewed the autopsy evidence in 2022, on behalf of counsel for Mr. Williams and independently for the Lake County State’s Attorney’s office, both concluded the more likely time frame of Ms. Williams’ death was closer to when her body was found on Sunday, Sept. 26, 1993, which makes it virtually impossible for Mr. Williams to have committed the crime.

Herman Williams is the 22nd person to be exonerated and/or released through the work of the Illinois Innocence Project .Since 1986, including Williams, five collar counties surrounding Cook County -- have wrongfully convicted and later exonerated 30 people — 11 in Lake County alone. These innocent individuals collectively served over 184 years in prison in Lake County, according to the project.

Maureen Foertsch McKinney is news editor and equity and justice beat reporter for NPR Illinois, where she has been on the staff since 2014 after Illinois Issues magazine’s merger with the station. She joined the magazine’s staff in 1998 as projects editor and became managing editor in 2003. Prior to coming to the University of Illinois Springfield, she was an education reporter and copy editor at three local newspapers, including the suburban Chicago Daily Herald, She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Eastern Illinois University and a master’s degree in English from UIS.