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Navy veteran exonerated, released from prison after serving nearly 30 years for a murder he didn't commit
Ray Abercrombie for the Innocence Project

Navy veteran exonerated, released from prison after serving nearly 30 years for a murder he didn't commit

In 1994, Herman Williams, now 58, was convicted by an Illinois court for the murder of his ex-wife. Last week, Williams’ conviction was vacated by agreement of the Lake County state’s attorney’s office, which dismissed all charges against him.

According to the Illinois Innocence Project, which worked to overturn Williams’ conviction, the Lake County state’s attorney’s office acknowledged that Williams’ conviction “was based on scientifically unsupported forensic pathology testimony regarding the victim’s time of death, that the prosecution hid favorable evidence at his original trial, and that the detective who claimed Mr. Williams confessed is now known to have engaged in a pattern of misconduct, including securing false confessions and claiming suspects made admissions of guilt in other innocence cases.”

Williams’ ex-wife, Penny Williams, was found in a pond several days after disappearing. She died from blunt force trauma and defensive wounds.

After Penny Williams went missing, local police and the Lake County Major Crimes Task Force focused on Herman Williams — a Navy chief petty officer at the time — as the only possible suspect, ignoring other leads in the case, according to the Innocence Project. Herman Williams was arrested, convicted of first-degree murder, and sentenced to life in prison without parole.

Advanced DNA testing was not available at the time of Williams’ conviction. In 2021, new DNA testing revealed evidence that showed Williams did not commit the murder.

The Innocence Project also found other errors in the state’s prosecution of the case. For example, at trial, the state presented testimony from an expert who had compared soil from the crime scene area to soil from Williams’ truck wheel and told the jury that the soils matched. “A 2021 review of the soil comparison in this case found it to have been rife with errors and unreliability,” according to the organization.

The Lake County state's attorney's office acknowledged the detective on Williams' case is now known for a pattern of misconduct and has a record of false confessions in other innocence cases, according to the Innocence Project.

"It's still sinking in," Williams told CBS News Chicago after being freed, "but I feel vindicated — that's the word."

The misapplication of forensic science has contributed to 52% of wrongful convictions in Innocence Project cases, the organization reports. False or misleading forensic evidence was a contributing factor in 24% of all wrongful convictions nationally, the Innocence Project reports, citing the National Registry of Exonerations.

The Innocence Project is an independent nonprofit founded in 1992 that works to prevent and overturn wrongful convictions. It has over 70 affiliate organizations throughout the U.S. and internationally.

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