Sentenced to a Life of Mourning

Times Staff Writer

The middle-of-the-night call could mean just one thing: Jackie Arnold's daughter was having her baby. Gary Arnold answered the phone but handed it to his wife. She should be the first to hear the good news.

This is what she heard: Her daughter Debra Evans, 28, had been slain. Evans' fetus was missing, and her daughter was dead. One of her two young boys was missing, the other safe with police.

Sitting in her bed in the early hours of Nov. 17, 1995, Jackie Arnold learned the first details of a spree of butchery that had, unbeknownst to police, not yet ended.

This month, then-Gov. George Ryan commuted the death sentences of every condemned inmate in the state, to great praise from death penalty opponents around the globe. The Arnolds would like the world to understand the misery that came before, to appreciate what Ryan's executive order did from their point of view.

It spared the lives of people who, wanting a light-skinned black baby, shot and stabbed Evans, sliced her full-term fetus from her womb, stabbed her daughter to death in her bed, kidnapped one son and later stabbed him to death too. Evans probably was still alive when they cut out her baby, an autopsy showed.

That baby is still alive. Elijah Evans is 7 and lives with his 9-year-old brother, Jordan, cared for now by Debra Evans' father, Sam Evans. The older boy saw the killers cut open his mother. He was 22 months old and spared, police believe, because the killers thought him too young to make sense of the mayhem, and because one of them was his father.

It became clear from his nightmares, the family says, from his terror when he saw anyone who looked remotely like the killers, that he understood much of what was happening.

"It's not about closure," Jackie, 53, said of why they wanted the killers executed. "You can't give me closure -- not in this life. They deserved to die. George Ryan played God."

Ryan, a conservative Republican who left office Jan. 13 after one term, dramatically reinvigorated the national debate over the death penalty as he changed from proponent to opponent, placed a moratorium on executions and, two days before he left office, emptied death row.

As heads of state and Nobel laureates have lauded Ryan's actions, which reduced the death sentences of 164 inmates to life in prison without parole, and three others to 40 years, Ryan has received little support from Illinois residents.

Victims' families, hundreds of prosecutors, members of the state's Prisoner Review Board, and the new governor, Democrat Rod Blagojevich, have all harshly criticized Ryan. Blagojevich has said he will keep the moratorium for the time being, but has no plans to seek the end of the death penalty.

Indeed, by this week, prosecutors in the Evans case and dozens of others were going to great lengths to skirt Ryan's order, in some instances searching for technical legal glitches -- the kind they usually lament for freeing the guilty -- in the hope of sending some who received clemency back to death row.

They were combing old records to see if perhaps sentencing papers had not been signed or otherwise properly processed, on the theory that if an inmate had not been legally, technically, sentenced to death he could not be granted clemency from that sentence.

In several counties, prosecutors were revisiting multiple murder cases in which, after a person was sentenced to death in one or two of the crimes, other slayings were set aside. They may seek a new death penalty trial for the recently spared convict in one of the other cases. In Cook County, which includes Chicago, prosecutors filed a motion with the state Supreme Court arguing that 10 of the sentences Ryan commuted had been vacated by state or federal courts and the inmates, awaiting new sentencing hearings, should not then qualify for commutation.

Comforting Moments

As the legal maneuvering progressed one recent day, this town 60 miles south of Chicago was so cold that the streets were frozen nearly white even though it hadn't snowed. The ice of the Kankakee River creaked as it pushed slowly across the flatlands, passing near George Ryan's home, just a few miles from the Arnolds'.

The Arnolds sat in their ranch house in a quiet cul-de-sac and spoke about the startling amount of blood that can pour from a child's body, about the antidepressants that have helped keep Jackie together for more than seven years, about how they will never have the slightest idea what was really going through the killers' minds.

Their primary sources of comfort, after each other, were snapshots of their loved ones, spread out on the kitchen table, and the possibility that, although they despised the clemencies, maybe Ryan's order spelled the end of a seven-year line of hearings and trials and testimony.

They wished the end had come another way.

"They say Gov. Ryan's courageous," said Gary, Evans' 50-year-old stepfather, a manager for Environmental Management Corp. "Courageous.... He's a coward. This was a cop-out."

Solving the Puzzle

Within days of the murders in the Chicago suburb of Addison, police captured three suspects. Detectives quickly pieced together much of the story that would send two to death row, and the third to a life behind bars, plus 60 years.

Jacqueline Annette Williams, then 28, and her boyfriend, Fedell Caffey, then 22, could not have children of their own. Williams, prosecutors would argue, feared she would lose Caffey if she could not produce a son for him. Williams had a cousin named Levern Ward, then 24. Ward, who had a long record of drug and domestic abuse arrests, was an occasional paramour of Evans. Evans' family, having met Ward, pleaded with her not to see him.

Evans' family did not know that the two already had a child together, Jordan, 22 months old. They would later learn Ward also had fathered the baby taken from Evans' womb.

Evans was, from all accounts, a woman of high spirits and low self-esteem. She was boisterous and fun and had this way of visibly biting her tongue "when she was being devilish," Gary recalled. She befriended many, housing friends in need even though she was on welfare, and endured abusive relationships in an unfulfilled quest for happiness, friends said. Maybe it was because she was a bit overweight. Maybe it was because of her parents' divorce. No one was quite sure.

When her mother married Gary in 1991, Debra "was the first to accept me and my two daughters into the family," he said. "Debbie was just a great girl. And man, she loved those kids."

Despite their close relationship, Evans left out specifics of her personal life when talking to her mom and Gary, including details about the fathers of her children. Devout Baptists, Jackie and Gary had a hard time with her bearing children out of wedlock.

During dozens of hearings and three trials, the details of Evans' life emerged along with those of her death. Hundreds of hours of testimony and hundreds of pieces of evidence, however, never made clear how the crime was planned, who fired the .25-caliber handgun, who stabbed whom.

What did emerge was evidence of premeditation and unplanned savagery, the killers sparing one child while stabbing another in the throat, countless bits of information that for the Arnolds will never explain much.

"Who would have dreamed they'd cut the baby out?" said Jackie.

"You couldn't dream something like that," Gary said. "We couldn't."

From the trials and hearings, the Arnolds learned that Williams, who had undergone a tubal ligation years before, enrolled in nurse's aide training that included the study of how Caesarean sections are conducted; that Evans had told Williams -- a friend -- that she was going to have her birth induced Nov. 18, the day after the murders; that Williams had a fake birth certificate created that listed the boy's name as Fedell Rashaan Caffey. For months leading up to the murders, Williams feigned pregnancy, going so far as to attend prenatal classes, testimony showed.

Prosecutors said the trio shot Evans once and stabbed her several times before performing the crude Caesarean section. Her oldest child, Samantha, 10, was stabbed to death in her bed.

Boys Were in Hiding

Jordan, 22 months old, and Joshua, 7, watched their mother die from their hiding places, prosecutors said. Jordan was later found unharmed by a longtime on-again, off-again boyfriend, who also discovered the bodies.

Joshua ran out of the apartment. Williams caught him and took him to the home of a friend. Joshua told the friend that Williams, Caffey, Ward and a fourth person -- who has never been arrested -- "cut my mommy and sister."

When Williams learned the next day that the boy could identify her, she and Caffey made him drink iodine, but he vomited it up, prosecutors said. So they tried to strangle him with an electrical cord. When that didn't work they stabbed him to death.

In 1996, before the trials began, a judge in DuPage County, where the slayings took place, granted Evans' father custody of Elijah and Jordan. An unemployed teacher who lives in southern Illinois, Sam Evans shares the Arnolds' disdain for Ryan's blanket commutations.

"The boys are a little nervous, confused," Sam Evans said. "I've been telling them the killers are in prison and will be killed for what they did. Now they're asking me if they'll get out. Jordan told me, 'We're going to have to get a gun.'

"George Ryan," he continued, "took it upon himself to change the laws of the state of Illinois."

Williams and Caffey were convicted and sentenced to death. Ward was convicted and given life plus 60 years after jurors could not decide unanimously to execute him. (This, Ryan said, was one of the problems in the Illinois death penalty system: Why should Williams and Caffey die and Ward live when all were convicted of the same crime?)

After the trials came appeals, which went nowhere. Two of the killers were set to be executed; the third sure to die in prison.

The Arnolds began to enjoy days, even weeks, without discussing the case with prosecutors. "I felt like I could breathe," Jackie said.

Then, in 2000, Ryan announced a moratorium on executions after four men were freed in quick succession from death row. That brought to 13 the number of death row inmates freed since Illinois had reinstated the death penalty in 1977 -- one more than the state had executed.

"When he announced the moratorium," Gary said, "I just knew it wasn't going to turn out right."

Last summer, at Ryan's behest, the Prisoner Review Board heard clemency requests from every condemned inmate who requested one, a total of 142.

Retelling the Grief

The Arnolds had bought a new house. In their previous home they'd had an entire wall filled with pictures of Debbie and her kids. They were deciding if they were ready to make their memorial a bit smaller, a little more private, when Ryan announced the hearings. They put off thinking about the pictures and went to Chicago, where Jackie joined prosecutors in retelling how her daughter and two grandchildren were murdered as defense attorneys pleaded for the lives of Williams and Caffey.

After the hearings, Ryan said he would decide each case on its merits. On Jan. 11 he granted a blanket clemency. The Arnolds watched on TV. Jackie cried.

With a Bible lying beside the hundreds of photographs of Debbie and her kids, the Arnolds spoke about how the Old Testament allows for death as a punishment for murder. They talked about the state constitution, which makes the death penalty in Illinois legal and also provides the governor broad powers of clemency. They talked about how Illinois had voted to reinstate capital punishment in 1977 because, they thought, people here believed the most vicious killers deserved to die.

Gary recalled the time he and some of the kids were playing darts in the basement. They were safety darts, but still he thought Samantha was too young. "I should have let her play darts," he said.

Jackie talked about how there's not much left on television that she can watch. Even hospital shows with sick, suffering children have become unbearable. She talked about how, for a short time in the late 1990s, she began to remember things about her oldest daughter and the two kids other than the way they died.

"For the first two or three years I couldn't do anything but lie in my house and pray," she said. "Then I was making my way. Now I just pray again. I ask God to make me think of something else, ask God to put something else in my mind, something but how they killed them all."

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