It is a saga of murder and injustice that spans three decades, and even now a surprising new chapter is being written.
Anthony McKinney, a black teenager, was convicted of the 1978 shotgun slaying of white security guard Donald Lundahl in South Suburban Harvey. Prosecutors sought the death penalty, but McKinney had no history of violence and the judge sentenced him to life without parole.
A quarter century later, my journalism students re-investigated the case, unearthing evidence that pointed to McKinney's innocence: a confession coerced by a brutal cop, witnesses who admitted they had lied at the trial, viable alternative suspects and an alibi nailed down by the TV log of a Muhammad Ali championship fight. Based on this evidence, lawyers at the Center on Wrongful Convictions filed an innocence petition in 2008 seeking a new trial for McKinney and the Chicago Sun-Times ran a front-page story that exposed the injustice.
But Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez turned the tables in 2009 by subpoenaing the students' grades, notes and memos about the case. McKinney's plight was lost in the media uproar that followed.
One man, however, remained intently focused on the evidence. Meet Donald Gemmell, Ph.D., a retired physicist at Argonne National Laboratory -- and the foreman of the jury that decided McKinney's fate.
Gemmell, now 77-years-old, has been haunted by the verdict for most of his adult life. Last month, he called me to confess: The jury that he led had made a tragic mistake. "We convicted an innocent man," he said in a voice filled with pain.
Gemmell's doubts about McKinney's guilt first surfaced during the trial, he said. He was skeptical about the credibility of the lead detective in the case and the testimony of a supposed eyewitness. And, he wondered why the state was unable to produce the murder weapon since police had apprehended McKinney near the scene. But mostly he was confused by the state's time-line of events. "It was hard to figure out where the witnesses were in relation to the shooting," he said.
Nevertheless, after he was elected foreman. the initial vote was 8-4 to convict, and two days later. the verdict was unanimous: Guilty. "We figured McKinney probably did it because he confessed," Gemmell explained. "Why would an innocent person admit to murder? And we saw pictures of that poor man's brains splattered all over his car. It was troubling that [McKinney] didn't seem remorseful about that."
Gemmell said he "didn't sleep for weeks" following the verdict and began methodically reviewing the evidence in his head, as a scientist would. Logic gradually replaced the emotion of the trial. As time passed, his doubts became "more nagging." He followed the recent controversies about the case on the Internet and was not surprised to read about the new evidence of McKinney's innocence. He also became "not as naive" about the problem of false confessions. Finally, consumed by remorse and having moved from the Chicago area, he called to repudiate the verdict.
Reflecting on the case, an interracial crime, Gemmell chides two white jurors for showing "racial bias." A female juror, he says, made overtly racist comments about McKinney. He says their votes for conviction were predictable -- and not based on the evidence.
He similarly recounts a black juror's pronouncement that "Hell is gonna freeze over before I'll cast a vote against my black brother." When he switched his vote to guilty at the end of deliberations, Gemmell asked for an explanation. "'I have a job on the overnight train to Seattle and if I'm not on board... it'll cost me two days' pay!'" he told Gemmell.
"So [the black juror] caught his train to Seattle without losing any pay. And Anthony McKinney went to prison for life."
Gemmell has "come to the conclusion that Mr. McKinney has indeed been wrongfully imprisoned and that the case against him was flawed." How flawed? "[T]he course of justice was perverted...," he believes.
"It's really a shame that a blameless young fellow who liked to go out with his friends was found guilty of murder," he continues. "I feel terrible that I didn't question it more."
Legal experts downplay the significance of juror recantations, considering them to be buyer's remorse. Famously, a juror in the Troy Davis case led the charge to spare his life when new evidence of innocence emerged, but that didn't stop the authorities from putting him to death last year.
Still, Gemmell hopes his voice will be heard in the decision whether to grant McKinney a new trial. That decision will be made by criminal courts Judge Diane Cannon following the impending hearing on the innocence petition.
"I'm willing to come to Chicago, if necessary," Gemmell says. "I want him to go free someday soon."
Anthony McKinney was 18 years old at the time of his arrest. He will turn 50 next Monday.
Has anyone served on a jury where you later believed the verdict was unjust, either for conviction or acquittal? Please post your comments.