They were young and in love, three happy couples from different times and places. They were planning to raise children and spend the rest of their lives together. They could not have imagined that they would die together without fulfilling their dreams, violently murdered at the hands of the lowest of the low, poster boys for the death penalty.
Carol Schmal and Larry Lionberg, a white couple from the south suburbs of Chicago, had just become engaged on a warm spring day in 1978. Wanting to be together that night, Carol kept Larry company while he manned the overnight shift at a suburban gas station. They probably didn't notice the four men who pulled into the station -- until it was too late.
Abducted at gunpoint, Carol and Larry were driven to an abandoned townhouse in a poverty stricken, mostly black community. Carol was gang-raped, then shot twice in the head. Larry was shot, execution-style, in the head and back. Their bodies were discovered the next morning by neighborhood kids.
Based on a call from an informant, police arrested two black men, and later picked up two more for questioning. All four were charged when their female friend swore she saw them commit the crime. She knew details that only a credible witness would know, the authorities said.
Her testimony, the corroborative account of another witness, and lousy alibis were enough to convict the men. Two were sentenced to death, the other two to long prison terms.
Carol and Larry's family members were content that justice was done and awaited news of the executions.
Karen and Dyke Rhoads were newlyweds. Married less than a year in the small town of Paris, IL., both held down jobs in a tough economy and were talking about having their first child.
On the weekend of July 4, 1986, they were about to turn in for the night when intruders broke into their home, startling the couple as they lay in bed. Within minutes that must have seemed like an eternity, Karen and Dyke were stabbed more than fifty times until they suffocated on their own blood. Then the killers set the house on fire. The fire department discovered their charred remains.
Police said they were stumped until a resident of the town came forward claiming she knew who had killed Karen and Dyke. The witness said it was the handiwork of a couple of good ol' boys from the town. The motive: a drug deal gone bad. She was present for the crime and accurately described a vase that had been broken in the couple's bedroom, even producing the knife she said was the murder weapon.
When another witness confirmed her story, both men were arrested, charged and convicted of murder and arson. One got death, the other life.
Karen and Dyke's family members were content that justice was done and awaited news of the execution.
Marilyn Green and Jerry Hillard were two sweethearts from Chicago's South Side. Aug. 15, 1982 was special to them, the day of an annual parade through their neighborhood. There were marching bands and floats, a few hours when violent crime took a back seat to public celebration.
As Marilyn and Jerry sat in the bleachers in a park that adjoined the parade route, a gunman approached and opened fire. Jerry was hit in the chest and killed instantly. Rushing to help, Marilyn was shot in the throat. She stumbled from the bleachers and collapsed dead.
A man who was leaving the swimming pool near the bleachers said he witnessed the murders. He positively identified the shooter as a thug from the neighborhood. Another man in the park said he'd been robbed by the same thug in the same park moments before he shot the couple.
Charges, conviction and death sentence quickly followed.
Marilyn's mother was not so sure that justice was done, but the witness's testimony had been convincing and no one cared what she thought, so she awaited news of the execution.
Four poster boys had been added to the rapidly growing death row population in Illinois. They waited to die for sixty years collectively as death penalty proponents howled at the length of time between sentence and execution.
Trouble was, the men were innocent.
Dennis Williams and Verneal Jimerson were wrongfully convicted and condemned for murdering Carol and Larry. Co-defendants Kenneth Adams and Willie Rainge were also innocent. Randy Steidl was wrongfully convicted and condemned for murdering Karen and Dyke. Co-defendant Herb Whitlock was innocent, too. And Anthony Porter -- who had come within 50 hours of execution -- was wrongfully convicted and condemned for murdering Marilyn and Jerry.
The witnesses had lied. All of them. Later, they claimed that police had coerced their statements, or they had come forward to get rewards or other perks. The details of the crimes that had made the witnesses credible? Turns out they had been provided by police during questioning. The knife? The blade wasn't long enough to inflict those gaping wounds. The broken lamp? Accidentally broken by firefighters trying to extinguish the blaze.
Yet the witnesses had convinced judge after judge, jury after jury and every appellate court in the land that the men in these cases were guilty. In the end, the justice system failed to catch the injustice it had created. It was outsiders -- volunteer lawyers, private investigators, reporters and even journalism students -- who proved the men were innocent through witness recantations, confessions by the actual killers and DNA tests.
And these innocent men are not alone. During the last three decades, 135 other death row inmates have been exonerated in 26 states, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. In most cases, the wrongful convictions had occurred because of false witness testimony.
Exonerations can be bittersweet for family members of murder victims. The siblings of Carol and Larry were in the courtroom with Dennis Williams and Kenneth Adams when one of the actual killers was sentenced -- to life. "We're truly sorry for what happened to you," Carol's sister tearfully said to the innocent men whom she had mistakenly hated for eighteen years. "We know your pain will never go away, but we hope you take consolation in the truth," Williams replied.
In Paris, IL, the Rhoads family had become increasingly dubious about the guilt of the prisoners ever since a state police lieutenant, Mike Callahan, had re-opened the investigation into the murders. Callahan had concluded both men were innocent and a well-connected businessman may have been behind the crime. When Callahan was yanked from the investigation because his superiors said it was "too politically sensitive," the family knew the case smelled. They were glad to see Randy Steidl and Herb Whitlock released, but wondered if there ever would be justice for Karen and Dyke.
On the South Side of Chicago, Marilyn's mother was relieved that Anthony Porter had been freed and the real perpetrator brought to justice. She did not want the wrong person executed in her daughter's name. Still, she shook her head at the sentence: 37 years for the same crime that had brought Anthony Porter to within two days of execution.
Twenty-nine years have passed since Marilyn and Jerry were murdered, a quarter century since the slayings of Karen and Dyke, and 33 years for Carol and Larry.
For their families, all that remains are sweet memories, tattered pictures and fading images of the poster boys for execution who turned out to be as innocent as their loved ones.