The Justice Project - Profile of Injustice

Darby Tillis and Perry Cobb

Chicago, Illinois

Darby Tillis and Perry Cobb, wrongly convicted and sentenced to death for a 1977 Chicago murder, were tried five times before being exonerated in 1987.

The first two trials ended in hung juries, but the third resulted in convictions and death sentences. After a reversal by the Illinois Supreme Court on technical grounds, they were tried two more times before being acquitted in 1987.

Falsely accused by others and unfairly tried by a corrupt judge, Tillis and Cobb were exonerated only after an area lawyer’s chance remembrance of an old conversation implicating someone else. Enduring eight years on death row, Tillis and Cobb were put on trial more times than any other defendant in U.S. history.

On November 13, 1977, a little after 5:00 a.m., two men running a hot-dog stand on Chicago’s North Side were robbed at gunpoint, shot and killed. Three weeks later, a woman named Phyllis Santini went to the police with a story accusing Tillis and Cobb of the crime, claiming she had driven the getaway car. Both men were then arrested. When Cobb was apprehended - without a warrant - the police discovered he had a watch belonging to one of the victims. Cobb insisted he had recently bought it for $10 from Johnny Brown, Phyllis Santini’s boyfriend. Johnny Brown would later be suspected of being the actual killer.

Throughout the first three trials, the prosecution’s case revolved around the watch (the only physical evidence), Santini’s accusation, and the testimony of Arthur Shields, a bartender at a tavern across the street from the hot-dog stand, who testified that he had seen two black men stand inside his tavern’s door around the time of the homicides.

The defense was barred from presenting its full evidence to the court. Two defense witnesses, Patricia Usmani and Carol Griffin, offered testimony that Phyllis Santini had admitted to committing the murders with Brown and that she expected a reward for testifying against Cobb and Tillis. Santini was in fact paid $1,200.

The presiding judge of the first three trials, Thomas J. Maloney, refused to allow the testimony of Usmani and Griffin, even after the defense made an offer of proof. Judge Maloney, who was later convicted in a federal trial of taking bribes in criminal cases (and was accused of being tough on the defendants who did not offer bribes, like Tillis and Cobb), never instructed the jury to review Santini’s testimony, that of an accomplice witness who could have been charged with the crime herself, with suspicion (a legal procedure known as “jury instruction on accomplice testimony” or simply “accomplice instruction”).

Four years after Cobb and Tillis were sent to death row, the Illinois Supreme Court reversed and remanded their case. The Supreme Court found that Judge Maloney’s refusal to direct the jury with accomplice instruction constituted a judicial error. The Court also found Maloney erred by not allowing the testimony implicating Santini and her boyfriend.

After the reversal, Michael Falconer, a local lawyer, read an investigative story about the Cobb/Tillis case in Chicago Lawyer magazine. Falconer then came forward and reported that he had worked with Phyllis Santini in a factory many years ago. While there, Santini had told him that she and her boyfriend had robbed a restaurant and that her boyfriend had shot someone during the robbery.

Despite Falconer’s story, prosecutors tried Cobb and Tillis two more times. The fourth trial ended in a hung jury, but the fifth - a bench trial - resulted in an acquittal, largely due to Falconer’s testimony implicating Santini and Brown. On January 20, 1987, Darby Tillis and Perry Cobb - after spending eight years of their lives on death row - were finally cleared. In 2001, Illinois Governor George Ryan pardoned both men. Brown and Santini, in spite of all the evidence against them, have never been charged.

Following his release, Perry Cobb found a job as a janitor in a Chicago apartment building, giving up his old singing career due to a loss of confidence following his experience on death row. Darby Tillis became a preacher and formed an organization to help released death row inmates readjust to society. He has actively campaigned for death penalty moratoria in Illinois and elsewhere. Despite these accomplishments, however, Tillis’s horrific experience on death row will always be with him: “When you get the death penalty, most of us try to stand up and take it like a man,” he later explained. “Then you get to death row. You’re hit by the stench of Pinesol, feces, urine, body odor, sick odor. You are in the Death House…you’re warehoused for death, treated like contaminated meat to be disposed of. You sit there and await death, and the pain you know will come to you some day.”