DNA Rescues Man Undone by 8 Years Behind Bars

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When John Willis was convicted of being the “beauty shop rapist,” DNA was rarely used in Illinois courts, but prosecutors didn’t need it: They had victims and eyewitnesses.

Two women said Willis raped them. Several others said he robbed them.

During his second trial in 1992, Willis pulled out a newspaper clipping of a man arrested in a similar string of attacks. He tried to show it to jurors.

It didn’t work.

Soon Willis was facing 100 years behind bars.

When Willis was charged with the first rape, blood tests were taken. But a Chicago police crime lab specialist testified at that trial that the results were inconclusive.


In prison, Willis wouldn’t give up. He lugged around his thick file, searching for a jailhouse lawyer to help him.

His life unraveled. He smoked five packs of cigarettes a day. He wasn’t allowed to attend the funeral of his teenage son, who died in a gang-related shooting. He missed seeing his daughter grow up--she was just 5 months old when he was arrested.

In 1997, public defender Greg O’Reilly asked to have evidence of the rapes retested under a weeks-old Illinois law that allows prisoners access to DNA analysis.

But all 20 pieces of evidence--rape kits, fibers, slides--were reported missing. The police lab, evidence storage room and prosecutor didn’t have them.

O’Reilly then asked the lab for the blood test results and notes. When he received them, he was amazed: Willis’ blood type--taken in 1991--didn’t match the type identified in the semen taken from the first crime scene.

That information, he says, had never been provided to the defense.

Three forensic experts confirmed the lack of a match, O’Reilly says, and called it powerful evidence of Willis’ innocence.


But Willis wanted full vindication.

“I said, ‘Get me a DNA, man. This will clear my name,’ ” he recalls. “My mother didn’t raise me to be no rapist and stick people up.”

DNA could do more than exonerate him--it might lead authorities to the real rapist.

Armed with his findings, O’Reilly met with the lab specialist and a new prosecutor. That prosecutor, he says, then reported that evidence had been found--two slides were tucked in the bottom of the manila trial folder.

Only one had a minuscule amount of sperm cells--the size of a pinprick. It was barely enough for testing.

The results showed the DNA belonged to that other man arrested in the beauty shop rapes. When Willis learned the news, he began sobbing.

After more than eight years in prison, Willis was released in 1999. He has been rebuilding his life and seeing a psychologist.

“I’ll be angry a lot of the time,” he says. “I try to keep praying. I try to go forward. I try not to hold grudges.”


Now 52, he lives with his brother in Peoria, Ill., and works as a restaurant maintenance man.

This year, Willis sued city and county officials, alleging malicious prosecution and wrongful imprisonment, claiming they hid the blood test results. The city denies any wrongdoing; the county declined comment.

For Willis, there’s a bitter lesson in his ordeal.

“I know how the system is,” he says. “If you’re poor, it’s all over.”

He says he knows the rape victims suffered, but so did he.

“They just wanted somebody in jail,” he says. “But I wasn’t the one who did it. I lost my son, my kids, my family. I had nothing. I’m sorry for what happened to them. They got hurt. But is anyone sorry for me?”