The Justice Project - Profile of Injustice

Donald Reynolds and Billy Wardell

Childhood friends Donald Reynolds and Billy Wardell spent over eleven years in prison for a crime they did not commit, largely due to a lack of oversight and transparency in the forensic lab that tested evidence in the case. An exculpatory forensic report was never disclosed, and the incorrect testimony of a forensics expert was used to shore up questionable eyewitness identifications in court. In 1997, DNA tests exonerated them.

On May 3, 1986, two University of Chicago students were walking near their dormitories when three men claiming to have a gun approached them. After robbing the women of six dollars, the attackers forced the women to walk several blocks to a secluded area and separated the two victims. One victim was raped and scratched her attacker on the face and neck. The second victim was able to fight off her rapist. The men then fled and the women called police from a nearby security phone. Both victims provided descriptions of their assailants and were taken to the hospital, where rape kits were prepared.

Police picked up the victims a few days later to prepare a composite sketch. As they passed by the crime scene on the way to the station, they noticed a police officer questioning a man, Donald Reynolds, who had a number of scratches on his face and neck. One of the women declared, “That’s him. That’s the guy.” The police officer stopped the car and brought Reynolds over to the car and both victims identified him as one of their attackers. Reynolds was arrested and charged shortly thereafter.

A month later, the police showed the victims a photo lineup that included Billy Wardell, a longtime friend of Reynolds. One of the victims tentatively picked Wardell’s photo, stating “this could be one of the guys.” She admitted, however, that she was not sure - her attacker wore a hood the whole time, making it difficult to see him. Four days later, however, the same victim positively identified Wardell at a physical lineup. Each man in the lineup put on a gray hooded sweatshirt and uttered a phrase spoken during the attack. The second victim could not identify anyone. Although Wardell had three alibi witnesses and the first victim described her attacker as three inches taller and 85 pounds heavier than Wardell, the police charged him as Reynolds’s accomplice. Prior to this case, neither had been in serious trouble with the police.

Before their joint jury trial in January 1988, Reynolds and Wardell requested that the DNA evidence be tested. The judge denied the request on the grounds that the testing was too new and its reliability and methodology not yet sufficiently established to allow it in court. As a result, only basic blood testing was performed on the evidence.

At trial, both of the women identified Reynolds and Wardell as their attackers. In addition, police serologist Pamela Fish testified that semen recovered from one of the victims could only have come from 38 percent of the black male population, and that Reynolds was included in this segment of the population.

Reynolds and Wardell were convicted by a jury. After the conviction, Cook County Circuit Judge Arthur Cieslik told Reynolds and Wardell, “You weren’t satisfied with [robbing the victims]. You were going to have some more fun with some white girls.” He then proceeded to sentence Wardell and Reynolds to an extended prison term totaling sixty-nine years. An appellate court later reduced their sentence to fifty-five years based on Cieslik’s racist remark.

Reynolds and Wardell, with their attorneys Kathleen Zellner and David Gleicher, continued to petition the courts for DNA testing. In 1997, DNA testing was finally conducted on semen from the rape kit, proving that neither Reynolds nor Wardell was the attacker.

Though prosecutors originally opposed overturning the convictions, arguing that the shaky eyewitness identifications should trump the DNA, a new assistant state’s attorney took over the case and eventually agreed to the release of Reynolds and Wardell. Their sentences were vacated on November 17, 1997.

Misleading Testimony and Suppressed Forensic Report Exposed
Evidence of wrongdoing by the forensic experts was uncovered after Reynolds and Wardell were released. First, crime lab analyst Pamela Fish’s testimony, in which she claimed that the perpetrator had a blood type characteristic shared by only 38 percent of black males and which included Reynolds, was exposed as false, and was based on what attorneys characterized as a “narrow, prejudicial view of the evidence.” In fact, an independent expert analysis showed that nearly 80 percent of black males could have shared the characteristic Fish’s testing identified. The false testimony was only discovered as a result of investigations into the unrelated wrongful conviction of John Willis (another victim of Fish’s misleading testimony).

According to an independent analysis of cases in which Fish testified by DNA expert Dr. Edward Blake, “In many of these cases, Ms. Fish misrepresent[ed] the scientific significance of her findings either directly or by omission. The nature of these errors are such [sic] that a reasonable investigator, attorney or fact finder would be misled. . . . And always she offered the opinion most damaging to the defendant.” Fish’s misleading testimony has since been identified as a factor in the wrongful convictions of at least five others.

In addition to the misleading testimony, important exculpatory forensic results were never provided to defense lawyers despite their formal requests for all scientific tests and any exculpatory evidence. Chicago Police crime analyst Maria Pulling prepared a report concluding that hairs found on Reynolds’ underwear did not match either victim. It is unclear whether the failure to disclose the report was intentional or inadvertent, but Pulling later swore of her report that “It was significant exculpatory information - it indicated that the hair and fiber evidence taken from [the victim] did not match the evidence from Reynolds. This should have been reported to the defense.”

Dr. Howard Harris, a former head of the New York City police crime lab and former president of the American Society of Crime Lab Directors, prepared a report at the request of attorneys for Reynolds and Wardell, in which he identified many shortcomings in the Chicago Crime Lab. Prominent among them were a lack of training and guidelines regarding presentation of testimony, and a lack of monitoring of testimony that could serve as a check on misleading characterizations of results. “Failure to train and/or monitor examiners’ courtroom testimony can lead to serious deviations from proper testimony,” wrote Harris. “Further, the importance of resisting advocacy type pressures from investigators or states attorneys is also an ethical issue of great difficulty for examiners, particularly in police-run crime laboratories and should be formally covered in training.”

Reynolds and Wardell each lost eleven years of their lives. After receiving pardons from Governor Jim Edgar, the Illinois Court of Claims paid each of them $120,300.00. They also recovered $45,000 each in a settlement of a civil suit against the city.