Till Death Do Us Part
By Keith O'Brien
FEBRUARY 2, 1998: Mary Enoch stares out the windshield at the highway, sipping coffee from a travel mug. Out of a web of tired wrinkles, her greenish-blue eyes flicker with warmth as the cold January sunlight peeks through winter's eternal gray. Miles pass into the rearview mirror, minutes fade into time. It is Saturday morning and Mary, as always, is making the hour-and-a-half drive from her home in south suburban Park Forest to see her husband in Pontiac, in the heart of the snow-covered Illinois prairie. There, in a quiet room beyond a tangle of glistening barbed-wire fencing and behind door after door of cold steel bars, Mary will chat with her husband, Willie Enoch, a convicted murderer. Barring intervention from Governor Jim Edgar or the United States Supreme Court, Mary will be talking to a dead man.
Mary and Willie Enoch were married in a small, well-guarded wedding ceremony on Death Row inside the austere walls of the Pontiac Correctional Center on December 13, 1996. The exchange of vows and rings took place about eight years after they first met and more than thirteen years after a jury in Peoria County convicted Willie Enoch, then 28, in the grisly murder of Armanda "Kay" Burns, a 24-year-old housekeeping supervisor. It was the kind of bloody, senseless killing that brings hatred down on the offender. The trial lasted just three days, with one of those days devoted solely to jury selection. But Willie Enoch has consistently maintained his innocence in the murder of Kay Burns. Willie admits taunting the judge to give him the death penalty. The judge did as Willie asked and sentenced him to death by lethal injection.
At first glance, Mary, 60, and Willie, now 43, have very little in common. Willie Enoch is an African-American man with four prior convictions for rape, in addition to the 1983 conviction for murder, aggravated kidnapping and attempted rape. Born and raised in poverty in Sumner, Mississippi, Willie had by all accounts a violent childhood that turned him to a life on the streets. After moving to Chicago, selling drugs became his game.
In conversation, Willie's voice rings out like that of a preacher, echoing off vowels and resonating on consonants. He is at the same time boisterous and bashful, engaging yet sometimes baffling, showing signs of brilliance and then total carelessness in his words. Most of the time, Willie is either talking about the Bible, his faith or his case. Willie talks a lot.
Mary, on the other hand, walks softly and speaks with total sincerity. She works for the Illinois Department of Human Services and gives away most of the rest of her free time to others, writing letters to inmates on Death Row in other Illinois prisons, employing an ex-convict and one-time murderer to do odd jobs around her home on Sundays, picking up stray dogs off the highway and giving them a home. Her Saturdays are for Willie, her Sundays for church and visits with her 95-year-old mother. She is, most prominently, a volunteer with the Illinois Coalition Against the Death Penalty who ardently disagrees with the legalized execution of other human beings. However, her opinions come quietly, in sentences that many times trail off into whispers and then silence. Self-deprecating and quick to laugh, Mary is as sweet as iced-tea on a sweltering summer day in Georgia. Nowhere could this tiny woman appear more out of place than walking amidst and talking to the state's most violent criminals. Yet she appears to like it that way.
Despite their differences, they both say they love each other. Willie even goes so far to say that it was love at first sight. Mary, always the more cautious of the couple, would rather explain their marriage in more practical terms. She loves him, but one of the most compelling reasons why she decided she wanted to marry Willie several years after he first proposed is because within thirty days of an inmate's execution, family members get unlimited visits. Mary couldn't bear not being there with him. "I love him. I do love him. But our marriage is different than it would be under other circumstances," she explains.
The prospect of Willie's March 18 execution divides other people along legal and moral lines like a river cuts through a desert. The People of the State of Illinois v. Willie E. Enoch is a lightning rod of controversy. Despite the fifteen years which have passed since that fateful night in April 1983, despite DNA testing the State of Illinois Crime Lab says points to Enoch, the defense and Willie's supporters raise interesting, even troubling, questions about his case, if not about his innocence directly. "I hope he's innocent," Mary says softly, echoing the sentiment that has become the mantra. "I believe he is innocent. But we will never know."
Outside the high concrete walls of the Pontiac Correctional Center, the sounds of shotguns firing ring out like church bells, bouncing off the low ceiling of the overcast sky. The guards are taking target practice. Inside the gated doors, Mary goes through her Saturday routine in silence. She gives the sergeant behind the counter her identification card, although he recognizes her. She signs in, emptying her pockets in a locker. Before coming down today, she had Willie request that she be allowed to bring in a loan application because, as her husband, she needs Willie's signature on the document. Though Willie has made the request, the sergeant denies her, saying that Willie requested permission to see legal documents. A loan, he says, does not constitute a legal document -- it too must go in the locker. The guards dressed in putrid green then ask her to remove her shoes and coat as they pat her down.
She is clean. A hallway leads outside and then back through locked doors again into another hallway, where Mary passes scenes of families and friends visiting other inmates. Under the watchful gaze of guards, Mary follows the white hallways to a small white room with seven tables, each with four chairs. All the furniture is bolted to the floor.
The guard asks her to sit while he calls for Willie. There are only two other inmates in the room, each talking quietly to another person and noticeably not moving their hands from the tabletop before them. Undoubtedly, it is the kind of place that makes you feel compelled to whisper and look over your shoulder every now and then. A camera watches from above as Mary takes her seat. At each table three chairs are labeled with the word "visitor" and one with "inmate."
Mary settles into a chair below the domed mirror of the camera's eye. In one of the corners of the room sits a bookshelf with scratch paper and pencils, playing cards and a red-bound book with The Holy Bible emblazoned across the front in gold. "He spends a lot of time talking about the Bible these days," Mary says of her husband, whispering through a smile. "After awhile, my eyes start to sort of glaze over. But he finds it uplifting. I think it takes him out of this place, so I let him talk."
Willie appears in the doorway, wearing his prison blues, tinted glasses and a wide smile. He gently throws his shackled arms over Mary's head and kisses her quickly on the mouth, before taking his assigned seat. He awkwardly removes his glasses with both hands, sets them on the table, looks up and animatedly asks, "So, how's everybody?"
As Mary had warned, talk quickly turns to faith, God and how Willie finds his strength inside "this mad man's house, this cobra's den." Declaring himself a non-denominational Christian, he points out that his hair -- braided into thirteen two-inch strands, one of which curls up in front on his forehead -- represents Jesus and the twelve apostles, with the braid in front symbolizing Jesus. "[The Bible] affects me," he says, talking much louder than anyone else in the room. "Because here is a man that knows the purpose of life. It effects me that here are these twelve people without weapons who bear witness to Christ. It has an effect on me." He pauses. "Bearing witness... it's deep."
The conversation about faith, purpose and bearing witness takes on a stronger meaning this particular Saturday. Just three days earlier, the state informed Sheri Engelken, one of a team of high-powered Chicago attorneys who took on Willie's defense pro bono in 1989, that Willie is schedule for execution on March 18.
Engelken, in turn, called Willie. However, despite the latest news, this dead man talking -- defiant and poised when discussion of his impending death creeps into his conversation about the Bible -- shows no outward signs of fear or concern. In fact, he casually shrugs off such worries with less emotion than another person might show during rush-hour traffic. "It's been like any other week," he says. "Every week is the same. Whatever they're going to do to me, they can just go ahead and do it to me because I can't do anything about it. Only God can help me now."
Maybe, maybe not, say the defense and legal experts. For while it is true that Willie Enoch needs the equivalent of a legal miracle in order to postpone his death, many outside the case quietly support the defense claims that Willie -- whether innocent or guilty -- has not received the due process any case, especially a capital case, deserves.
Willie Enoch's journey to Death Row began the night of April 22, 1983. Willie said he went to meet his brother Bobby at the hospital where he worked as a maintenance man in Peoria. When he got there around the end of the shift and Bobby wasn't there, Willie walked Kay Burns home. "That's where the stories start to diverge," says Krista Endres, a lawyer for the defense. "According to Willie's story, they walked part of the way home, ran into Kay Burns' boyfriend, who was at the time Derek Proctor, and the two of them got in an argument. Willie, like he has said, awakened the next morning when the police came to arrest him. The prosecution's story is that, of course, he walked her all the way home, went into her apartment, and killed her."
According to the prosecution, Willie mercilessly butchered Burns after walking her home. Binding her hands behind her back with a coat hanger, the prosecution argued, Willie attempted to rape Burns as he had raped other women in the past, tearing off her clothes. He then sliced her open from her neck to her pubic area with a kitchen knife, stabbing her thirty-one times in the process and leaving bloody remnants of human carnage all over her apartment. Proctor testified to seeing Enoch leave the scene that evening with a bloody shirt in his hands. Louise Pate, who was at the time Willie's live-in girlfriend, also testified against him, saying that he had admitted to her that he killed someone. In addition to the fact that not one of Enoch's fingerprints was found in Burns' apartment, the defense now argues that Proctor's testimony is flimsy considering that he was also a suspect in the murder, a fact that was never revealed to the jury. And according to several attorneys who have worked on the case, Pate has also wavered over the years regarding what Willie did and didn't tell her.
The defense presents these issues now along with several affidavits from witnesses who were never questioned at the trial but who provide new insight as to what really happened between the time Enoch was last seen with Burns and when police came to arrest him.
However, Kevin Lyons, a Peoria County State's Attorney, who did not originally try the case but has handled it ever since, gets more than a little agitated at the slightest mention of Willie Enoch's possible innocence. "If there was a videotape showing him with a knife in her heart and he signed a confession saying he did it," Lyons postures, "there would still be people making him out to be innocent.There is a guilty man convicted of murdering Armanda Burns and his name is Willie Enoch."
Lyons has scientific evidence to support his belief. The results of DNA testing, long sought by the defense, came back in May 1997, shortly after the defense won the right to such testing from the state. Testing the sweat stains in a white button-down shirt soaked with the blood of the victim and found near the crime scene, the state's DNA research coordinator, William Frank, reported that a DNA profile matching that of Willie Enoch was found in both the armpit and collar regions of the shirt. According to the report, a match would be found in approximately 1 in 19,000 black people. Frank also said he found a second DNA profile in both regions of the shirt that did not match that of Enoch, Proctor or Burns.
The announcement of the results in a two-page report stunned the defense and derailed Willie's arguments of innocence. For the lawyers who had fought for Willie's life for years, the immediate effect was devastating. "I was the first one to cry," Endres recalls. "I just started breaking down crying. I had to run to the bathroom because I didn't want to be the one that got everyone else upset."
"Under the circumstances, there was a head of steam building," recounts Lawrence Marshall, a professor of law at Northwestern University, whom the defense consulted during the fight to obtain DNA testing. "There was the belief that the tests would exonerate Enoch. The state finally says it will do it. This is Enoch's great chance. But when the conclusions come back from the Illinois State Crime Lab they say, 'Uh-uhh, it's Enoch.' Everybody said, that's it. You've had your fifteen minutes of innocence. Now, let's just kill you."
Willie's lawyers assert, among other points, that two prominent legal issues preclude the question of Willie's innocence or guilt and justify immediately postponing the execution. First, Willie has never had the luxury of an appeal based on the failure of Mark Rose, his public defender, to file what is called a written post-trial motion for a new trial. Under state law, any person sentenced to die is guaranteed an appeal to the Illinois Supreme Court, unless the attorney fails to object to the trial in a timely fashion while also filing a written motion for a new trial. At the time, lawyers frequently did not file such a motion in writing, especially in capital cases, because those sentenced to death had an automatic appeal. Today, according to many lawyers, some defense attorneys still make the same mistake. But now when they do, the court asks them to see People v. Enoch and denies their request for a new trial.
In essence, the defense has been trying to overcome this mistake since day one. "It's a very rare case where People v. Enoch doesn't raise its head," Northwestern's Marshall says. In the July 1997 issue of Chicago Lawyer, Pat Tuite, a respected criminal lawyer in Chicago, wrote that he found the state's refusal to review People v. Enoch based on this technicality as "troubling." He still feels the same way. "Morally," Tuite argues, "I think if you're putting a man to death because his lawyer didn't cross all the t's or dot all the i's, you seem to be putting form over substance."
Secondly, Willie's attorneys have questioned the state's refusal to allow the defense to actually see last year's DNA test results and test them with their own expert. "If it's smoking-gun evidence of Willie Enoch's guilt," says Engelken, "one would think they would disclose it, and then ask the court to set an execution date under the theory that this just puts the nail in the coffin." She pauses, shaking her head. "But they haven't done it. Why not?"
Experts from both the legal and forensic science fields with no personal connection to the case strongly support the defense on this issue. "Why is the state not so eager to have the defense see the figures, see the data so that nobody can argue about this anymore?" asks Marshall. "Why would we all not want to be certain we're doing the right thing when we put the needle in that man's arm? That's what I don't understand. I'm groping for an answer.''
The answer, according to the state, is they don't have to. After all, the "so-called" DNA evidence confirmed what they already knew and stated prior: Willie Enoch is guilty. However, for one of the foremost DNA experts in the country, that explanation doesn't fly. Calling the report "sufficiently poor," Dr. Edward Blake, a San Francisco-based forensic scientist, says the state's concealed DNA tests would be like the prosecution finding the murder weapon, saying that they had it and then not showing it to the defense, yet using it as evidence. "The problem with the report is that it is simply not a scientific document," says Blake, who has worked on DNA evidence in criminal cases in twenty-three states. "It is nothing more than a collection of assertions unsupported by any scientific data at all. That's not scientific. Combine that with the concealment of the work produced by the lab and the state and what you have here is a Star Chamber procedure. Anybody with an interest in protecting the mechanics of how our system works has to be offended." Blake continues: "None of this has to do with the question is Willie Enoch guilty or innocent of the crime for which he was sentenced to death. We all walk in the shoes of Willie Enoch. If it can happen to him, it can happen to you or me." At the request of the defense, Blake wrote a twenty-page response to the state's two-page DNA report. The state would not permit Frank, the forensic scientist who performed the tests, to comment to NewCity.
One defense attorney called Blake Willie's "only hope." However, State's Attorney Kevin Lyons bristles at the thought of giving "hope" to this convicted murderer. "The facts in this case are clear," he says. "This is not a close case. This is not a close call. I'm not going to bed at night thinking, 'Gee, do we have the right guy?'" Neither is the victim's family for that matter, all of whom plan on attending his execution. "I have no feeling for him," says Robin Burns, who was 21 when her sister was killed. "I feel that he did the crime and now he has to pay for it." Nevertheless, as time runs out on Willie Enoch's case and his life, his lawyers are preparing perhaps their final argument for the U.S. Supreme Court with a renewed sense of urgency. They will outline the failures of Willie's public defender, attempt to persuade the High Court with evidence not mentioned in the trial fifteen years ago, and request access to the DNA results. They will plead not so much for the life of a man as they will argue for what they and others conceive as justice.
Back on Death Row, under the gaze of a green-clad guard, Willie Enoch asks not for mercy. Rather, all he wants is for the people who have made up their minds against him and the courts who have cast his case aside to take one final look before it's too late. As he has done since 1983, he maintains his innocence and even goes so far to say that he knows who actually murdered Kay Burns. It's not him, he says, refusing to elaborate. And for those who think it is, well, for them he has another response. "That's their opinion," Willie says with a shrug. "I can't change how they feel. I can't change that. I believe firmly that everyone should have their own opinion. But that's the wrong opinion The citizens of the State of Illinois should say, 'show us the facts and the evidence.' Stop hiding stuff from the defense and citing certain rules. Look at the whole picture. That's what they should do and then let them say whether I should die or be a free man."
When it's time to go, Willie stands for the first time in more than three hours and hugs his wife once, then twice, planting awkward kisses on her lips. He tells her he loves her and she tells him the same. They say they will talk tonight on the phone; of course, they will see each other again next week. Willie disappears with the guard as Mary makes her way outside. "I think I'm going to miss him more than he's going to miss me," she says, talking for the first time about what will happen when he's gone. "I don't know. I just think he's more a part of my life than I am a part of his." Darkness is falling now on the highway and on the snow-covered prairie of Pontiac as Mary goes home again, thinking about routine, the few remaining Saturdays with her husband, and the road that lies ahead.
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