Man acquitted in nearly 30-year-old West Side murder case tied to ex-detective accused of misconduct

Jurors found Bernard Williams, 44, not guilty after only a few hours of deliberations in his retrial on murder and aggravated battery charges Thursday evening.

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Bernard Williams (center) walks out of Cook County Jail in 2019 on $10,000 bond after a Illinois Appellate Court overturned his conviction.

Bernard Williams (center) walks out of Cook County Jail in 2019 on $10,000 bond after a Illinois Appellate Court overturned his conviction.

Matthew Hendrickson/Sun-Times

A man convicted of murder nearly 30 years ago when he was a teenager has been acquitted in a new trial ordered because of questions about his confession and the testimony of a lone witness.

Jurors found Bernard Williams, 44, not guilty after only a few hours of deliberations in his retrial on murder and aggravated battery charges Thursday evening.

“We’re happy the jury reached the correct result in this case to finally give justice to Bernard after far too long,” defense attorney Eli Litoff said.

Williams was convicted in 1998 of killing Gary Thomas outside Wash’s Lounge in West Garfield Park and was sentenced to more than 80 years in prison by Judge Joseph Claps. The appellate court later dropped the sentence to 60 years.

Williams spent nearly half his life behind bars after entering prison at 17 on the identification of a sole witness who later recanted.

A former Chicago police detective, now dogged by accusations that he beat and coerced confessions during his long career, claimed Williams had confessed in police custody but there was no recording or even notes to back up the claim.

The retired detective, Kriston Kato, testified at Williams’ retrial this week but said he did not recall the case beyond the files he reviewed before taking the stand. William’s attorneys made a point of reminding jurors about his lack of recall during their closing arguments.

Retired Chicago Police detective Kriston Kato testifies at the trial of Jason Van Dyke in 2018.

Retired Chicago Police detective Kriston Kato testifies at the trial of Jason Van Dyke in 2018.

Nancy Stone, Chicago Tribune pool

Williams sought a new trial in 2011 when the sole witness told the court that Williams was not the shooter. By then in prison himself, the witness said he falsely identified Williams in return for money and help from prosecutors in his own case, according to court records.

The appellate court stepped in several times before ordering a new trial, and Williams was released on bond in 2019 while the state weighed bringing the case against him a second time.

“I’m going to be vindicated and my name will be cleared,” Williams said outside jail after his release. “The truth is going to come out.”

Kato’s marriage to Judge Mary Brosnahan led Criminal Division Chief Judge Erica Reddick to order Williams’ case to be heard in front of outside judges, as well as a handful of other cases connected to Kato that involve allegations he fabricated evidence and intimidated witnesses.

State’s Attorney Kim Foxx also requested that special prosecutors be appointed in the case.

Special Prosecutor Maria McCarthy asked jurors in her closing argument to use their “common sense” when reviewing the evidence and not take “the easy way out” by throwing up their hands in the face of a decades-old case.

She asked jurors to believe the initial testimony of the witness, who has since died. She suggested he changed his testimony because he was angry with the justice system due to his own involvement in the courts.

Prosecutors had to rely on the single identification of Williams despite dozens of other people on the street that day because people living in a “gang-infested neighborhood” don’t want to become involved out of concern for their own safety, she argued.

She said there was never any pressure on Kato from the department to solve the case, calling it “ridiculous” that detectives would “go out of their way” to frame Williams for the crime.

Williams’ attorney Ron Safer used his closing argument to pick apart the slim evidence offered by prosecutors in what he called an “extraordinarily flawed” case that hinged on the identification by a “proven liar” and a “made-up confession” by a police detective who didn’t even take notes on it at the time.

The special prosecutor, he said, hadn’t come close to meeting the burden of proving Williams was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

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