I never really believed that the state of Indiana would execute Darnell Williams. It’s easy to say that now that Democratic Gov. Joe Kernan has taken the nearly unprecedented step of commuting Williams’ sentence to life without the possibility of parole and ensured that Darnell’s life will be spared. But I never really thought the state would do it. Or perhaps more accurately, I never let myself believe that the state would kill a man it wasn’t absolutely, positively sure was guilty.
Darnell is the former death row inmate accused of participating in the murder of John and Henrietta Rease, an elderly Gary couple who were killed in 1986. There were four young people initially implicated in the killings, and of them only Darnell was set to be executed, a fact that Kernan cited as a reason for sparing him.
I started following Darnell’s case when most other journalists outside of Indiana did — the summer of 2003. He was set to be executed on Aug. 1, 2003, and his lawyer, Juliet Yackel, was working nearly alone at the time, scrambling to get someone, anyone in the media, to listen to her story.
The more I learned about Darnell’s story, the more I realized that no one — not the prosecutors, the jurors, the police or even Darnell himself — was absolutely sure he’d done anything at all beyond being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Darnell had consistently maintained his innocence, though by his own admission he was too out of it that night to remember much. But he’d remember killing someone, he said; he knew he’d remembered that.
Armed with Darnell’s story, Yackel dissected the case against him and found inconsistencies everywhere. There was evidence of fraud by the crime lab serologist; a witness who saw Darnell leave the scene of the crime was never called on to testify at his trial; and one of the key witnesses against him was a mentally ill foster child with a history of lying and instigating trouble. Yackel’s outrage was contagious, and I pored over documents from Darnell’s trial and appeals, exposing in as few words as I could how the state’s criminal justice system had failed Darnell again and again.
By the time the first story that I wrote appeared in NUVO (Dispatch, “Running Out of Time,” July 23-30, 2003), the rest of the country had finally started to listen. Stories appeared in The New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, on National Public Radio. Yackel was even on CNN. The media listened and so did then-Gov. Frank O’Bannon, who granted Darnell a reprieve to allow time for DNA testing. The inability of that testing to link Darnell to the crime, coupled with mounting questions about the validity of the state’s case against him, led the Parole Board to vote for clemency and for Kernan to grant it.
Beyond Yackel, and the team of attorneys who helped in the case over the years, beyond the legal groups and death penalty opponents who never gave up on Darnell, I believe another key player, an unlikely ally, helped save his life: the media. Throughout that last Parole Board hearing, Williams’ lawyers kept coming back to the list of newspaper editorial boards and columnists who felt that his life should be spared — The Indianapolis Star, the Evansville Courier, the Northwest Indiana Times, the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette. All across the state, newspapers trumpeted the weaknesses in the state’s case, something Yackel had been doing for years to no avail.
I believe those newspapers helped give Kernan, a death penalty supporter, an out, a way to spare Darnell without incurring the wrath of pro-death penalty forces, including those who support his opponent, Mitch Daniels. It also gave Daniels a way to let the issue pass without commenting, without offering any potentially controversial opinions on what he might have done.
For me, on a personal level, writing about Darnell, contributing to the media climate that helped save him, has restored my faith in journalism. I got my first glimpse in a long time of how my work had actually made a difference. After last summer’s Parole Board hearing, people following the case flocked to Gov. O’Bannon’s office for an announcement. While waiting there, I started to study the crowd.
There were people I recognized as being members of Darnell’s family, members of the Rease’s family and a small assortment of journalists. One man stood out, an older white man in overalls surrounded by black faces and well-dressed television reporters. He was talking to Darnell’s sister, and I couldn’t resist chatting him up to find out his story. What had brought him there?
In describing to me why he’d come to tell O’Bannon not to execute Darnell, he pulled a piece of newspaper from his pocket that was covered in pencil, with passages underlined and notes in the margin. With shock I realized that it was my story, the story I’d just written for NUVO.
It’s an indescribable feeling to be a journalist and hear someone read your own words back to you. I was touched beyond words and felt validated, for the first time in a long time, about being a member of the evil liberal media. Finally, we’d done something right.
Karen Hawkins is a Chicago-based freelance journalist and a George Washington Williams Fellow for the Independent Press Association.