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Hadiya Pendleton case: The verdicts are in, but are they true?

Commentary by Ted Pearson |
August 24, 2018

Chicago, IL - Mickiel Ward and Kenneth Williams have been found guilty of the murder of Hadiya Pendleton, and the battery with a firearm on Sebastian Moore and Lawrence Sellers. The news media are rejoicing with the family of the slain 15-year-old honor student who marched in President Obama’s second inauguration parade. Pendleton’s mother appeared after the verdict on television saying that she and her family intended to “celebrate” after the verdicts.

The defendants were held for five years and seven months in Cook County Jail awaiting trial, while prosecutors blocked every attempt by the defense attorneys to suppress Ward’s coerced ‘confession’ and to bring in expert witnesses to question the prosecution’s theory and ‘evidence’ in the case. When they were arrested, they were held for almost 24 hours with no access to anyone outside, including their families and legal counsel, despite repeated requests to speak to a lawyer. They were interrogated using the discredited “Reid Technique.” (1)

But what if Ward and Williams are victims of a frame-up designed to clear the name of the Chicago Police Department, which has 4095 homicides for which no arrest has been made in the past ten years. What if Judge Nicholas R. Ford erred in overruling every defense motion? Ford himself was involved as an assistant state’s attorney in taking confessions of suspects tortured by police in what have now been proven to be false confessions. (2) Why didn’t Judge Ford recuse himself in the case when his record of complicity in police torture cases is so well established?

There were two juries in this case, one to hear the case against Ward and the other to hear the case against Williams. Both juries, drawn from the wider Cook County jury pool, appeared to include only one Black person.

The juries in the two cases heard:

  • About the culture of “gang life” in Chicago;
  • The agony of Hadiya Pendleton’s family;
  • That the Chicago Police Gang Database identified Ward and Williams as member of the SUWU faction of the Gangster Disciples gang;
  • That a car that looked like a car owned by Ward’s mother was seen leaving the scene of the crime;
  • That Williams and Ward were recorded on video in Ward’s car nearby shortly after the shooting.
  • That Ward was identified by several witnesses as “resembling” the shooter;
  • That Williams made cell phone calls shortly before and after the shooting that pinged cell phone towers in the area of the shooting.
  • Lastly, the juries heard tearful testimony from Cleopatra Cowley, Hadiya Pendleton’s mother, about what hopes and dreams she had had for her murdered daughter, none of which had anything to do with the question before the juries: did Mickiel Ward and Kenneth Williams murder her daughter?

The juries in the cases either did not hear (by rulings by Judge Ford) or chose to ignore:

  • That the police, immediately having formed a “theory” that the case involved a gang shooting gone badly, refused to consider any evidence that conflicted with their theory;
  • That there was no evidence introduced that either Ward or Williams were members of the SUWU gang;
  • That other members of that gang had clear motive to seek revenge on another gang for shootings at them and reported to have taken the scene of the crime, Harsh Playlot, for their own turf;
  • That the police never attempted to recover the revolver flashed in a video shown to the jury and allegedly produced by the SUWUs in which neither Ward not Williams appear, which could have been used in the crime;
  • That Ward’s coerced ‘confession’ contained many ‘facts’ that conflicted with the facts of the killing, as established by the friends of the victim who were with her at the time, including that Ward said he definitely did not use a revolver, yet there were no shell casings found at the scene of the crime as there would have been had the shooter used an automatic weapon.
  • There was only one positive ID of Ward as the shooter in court, by Stephen Abdul, who initially said only that Ward resembled the shooter, picking him out of a lineup in which Ward was the only dark-skinned person, after Abdul had described the shooter as “dark skinned”;
  • The fact that “Eyewitness misidentification is the greatest contributing factor to wrongful convictions proven by DNA testing, playing a role in more than 70% of convictions overturned through DNA testing nationwide” (3);
  • That all those tentatively identifying Ward as “resembling” the shooter to police were on parole or probation when by police pressured them in unrecorded interrogations extended over several hours in which they were held without counsel and incommunicado;
  • That all of them later recanted their statements and their testimony given under duress to the grand jury that indicted Ward and Williams;
  • That Ward and Williams lived only a few blocks from the scene of the crime, and that cell phone site analysis is notoriously unreliable. (4)

The Williams jury spent three hours discussing the case before returning their verdict. The Ward jury spent three hours and 15 minutes. Could they have objectively reviewed seven full days of testimony in that short time?

The grounds for appeal in this case are too numerous to mention here. There is little doubt in this writer’s mind that eventually these convictions will be overturned. But how many years will that take? Ward is now 22 and Williams 27. Appeals have typically taken one or more decades to wend their way through the courts. Meanwhile most of the lives of these two young men will have been spent in prison, awaiting justice.

I have met Mickiel Ward only once, in Cook County Jail. He struck me as a man who is composed and articulate regarding his innocence, yet somewhat resigned to what seemed the inevitability of his false conviction. Members of his family (not his parents or grandparents) who have known him since he was a little boy and have watched him grow up say that he was never in a gang, and that the crime of which he’s been convicted is completely out of character.

So how long will it take for try justice to prevail in this case? It’s a politically charged case. It has been in the national news spotlight. But just because the victim was part of President Obama’s inauguration and was an honor student at one Chicago’s best high schools doesn’t mean that Ward and Williams are guilty. Like so much else in the criminal justice system, justice will depend upon how many people learn and face the truth about this case, and demand real justice: those wrongfully convicted must go free.


Notes:

[1] See Elki Hager, “The Seismic Change in Police Interrogations,” The Marshall Project, March 7, 2017.

[2] See Maya Dukmasova,“That time a Cook County judge ruled on the case of a man he himself put in prison when he was still a prosecutor?”, The Chicago Reader, May 25, 2018; and Rob Warden and Rick Tulsky , “Appeals court reversals mar record of Cook County judge up for retention Nov. 8,” Injustice Watch, October 31, 2016.

[3] See the Innocence Project, and Loftus, Groffrey, “What can a perception–memory expert tell a jury?”, Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 21010,17, (2) 143-148.

[4] See “The two towers: Junk science is putting innocent people in jail,” The Economist, September 6, 2014.