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Interview With Barry Scheck, John Gnajek

Aired July 25, 2003 - 19:32   ET


ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: An Indiana prosecutor who sent nine men to death row is racing against the clock to stop one of those executions. Darnell Williams is scheduled to die next Friday for the murder and robbery of an Indiana couple.
Now, prosecutor Thomas Vains (ph) says the execution should not go forward until DNA testing is done on some crucial blood evidence. And Vains has filed suit in a federal court to force the testing and ultimately stop the execution. A judge ruled tonight that the clemency hearing will go forward.

CNN's Jennifer Coggiola has details.


JENNIFER COGGIOLA, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Last efforts for a man's life.

DARNELL WILLIAMS, CONDEMNED TO DIE: I didn't kill Mr. and Mrs. Reed...

COGGIOLA: Darnell Williams is scheduled to be executed after midnight next Friday for shooting and killing John and Henrietta Reese (ph) in their home in Gary, Indiana, 17 years ago.

WILLIAMS: It was a messy ordeal, and blood and stuff was everywhere.

COGGIOLA: Drops of that blood found on Williams's shorts were never tested for DNA. But the prosecution claimed it was the victims' blood. The jury found Williams guilty of murder. Williams' attorney says DNA tests could show that the blood did not belong to the victim, which might change his sentence from death to life in prison.

JULIET YACKEL, ATTORNEY FOR WILLIAMS: ... question. The question is not whether about not Mr. Williams is going to go home tomorrow. The question is whether or not he will be executed.

COGGIOLA: Also in favor of doing tests, several former jury members, who say the blood was a key reason that they voted to convict Williams.

JOHN GNAJEK, FORMER JUROR: And now that it seems that that as long as other evidence is there, it's just -- sounds like -- it's being unfair to us and to our consciences also, you know, that this should at least be looked at. COGGIOLA: Arguing that there are no legal grounds for more DNA tests, the attorney general in a statement said, quote, "I am not opposed to the state voluntarily allowing additional DNA testing if the governor requests it for the clemency review."

Meanwhile, Williams waits on death row in this Indiana prison, knowing that this test could be...

WILLIAMS: Could be the final chance (UNINTELLIGIBLE) the truth out.

COGGIOLA: Jennifer Coggiola, CNN, Chicago.


COOPER: We wanted to go over more of the details on this case. With us from Chicago to talk about it is John Gnajek, who was on the jury that sentenced Williams to die. You saw him in the piece as well. And from Berkeley, California, Barry Scheck, law professor and founder of The Innocence Project.

Gentlemen, both of you, appreciate you joining us.

Barry, let me start off with you. Why is DNA evidence potentially so important in preventing this execution?

BARRY SCHECK, THE INNOCENCE PROJECT: Because the prosecutor, Tom Veins, argued to the jury, and believes himself, that if it were not for the finding that the blood on -- that was found on Mr. Williams' clothing, his shorts, came back to the victims, if DNA tests show that's not true, then there wasn't adequate proof that Mr. Williams was actually involved in shooting the victims, and therefore he should not be subject to the death penalty. That's the basis also upon which the jurors decided it.

Now, we are in court right now, we filed a motion in front of Judge John Tinder (ph), a federal judge, asking for access to the DNA evidence. I argued it on Thursday in front of him. And The Innocence Project is willing to pay for the test. So we have this ridiculous situation where the prosecutor tried the case, the jurors who deliberated, the -- all said that this blood evidence was crucial in the death sentence. If it's not blood from the victims in this case, there never would have been a death sentence.

And these people have those shorts, they have those bloodstains, and they're absolutely refusing to turn it over so a meaningful application for executive clemency can be made. This makes no sense, and we're hoping the Judge William -- Judge Tinder decides this in our favor.

COOPER: John, let me bring in you here. You were on the original jury. In fact, I'm told you really convinced some of the other jurors to go along to implement the death penalty for this man. What (UNINTELLIGIBLE) made you change your mind? Or at least have second thoughts? JOHN GNAJEK, JUROR: Well, when I was contacted by Juliet about the 9th or 10th of July, I -- until then, I wasn't aware that DNA evidence could be done on the shorts.

And when I found out that DNA evidence could be done, and since that was really the deciding factor, and that's the argument that I used to convince the other jurors to go along with the recommendation for death, I felt that the DNA evidence should be looked at, because without that evidence, there were several jurors that were very, very hard to convince that Darnell Williams was a shooter.

And without him being designated a shooter, there was no way that we would have gotten a death recommendation.

COOPER: Barry, I'm a little confused where this thing goes from here. I mean, the governor said the clemency review can go forward. That happens on Monday. This execution scheduled for Friday. What has to happen?

SCHECK: Well, what has to happen is, if we get a decision from Judge Tinder, which he promised us by Monday, which orders the evidence holders to turn over the shorts to us, then we can do a DNA test within a few days and get an answer to this question.

Now, it may very well be, we've been trying to get DNA tests, Darnell Williams has, for years on this. It could be that the DNA is degraded. It's very important for people to understand that there are good arguments why Darnell Williams should not be executed in any event.

The other defendant in this case, who John will tell you, by all accounts of the evidence, was the heavy, the person that had blood all over him, was definitely involved in the shooting, he is getting a life sentence because he was -- he is mentally retarded. Others involved in this incident, one was acquitted, the other one certainly didn't get the death sentence, (UNINTELLIGIBLE)...

COOPER: Right, the other one, I guess, made a deal with prosecutors in order to testify.

SCHECK: Right.

COOPER: So really he is -- Mr. Williams is really the only one left facing the death penalty.

SCHECK: Right. And there's very good reasons that he shouldn't. I mean, he had no felony record. He himself on prior occasions had saved another person's life. There's so many factors that, in traditional analysis of clemency, ought to lead Governor O'Bannion to spare Darnell Williams' life. Now...

COOPER: Well, it's a fascinating case, and one that is really unprecedented. I mean, you have the prosecutor coming forward saying he wants this DNA test. A lot of people, as we talked to John on the jury, he wants the DNA test. It will be very interesting to see what happens on Monday. We'd like to keep following this with you both. Barry Scheck, appreciate you joining us, and John Gnajek...

SCHECK: Thank you.

COOPER: ... as well. Thank you very much.


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