Attorneys grappled over 30-year-old evidence at close of unusual double murder trial

For years, Gerald Reed’s claims of abuse by Chicago detectives were in the spotlight. All eyes were on his tangled case as the justice system, once again, had to grapple with a decades-old legacy of police torture.

But last week, as Reed was finally brought to a retrial, the focus shifted in a crucial way: Entirely separate from his allegations of torture, is he actually guilty of a gruesome 1990 double murder?

“He is responsible,” said special prosecutor Mary Jennings in closing arguments Thursday. “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to say he is responsible.”

Reed’s attorney Elliot Zinger, in turn, called the evidence thin and speculative.

“You can’t guess people into the penitentiary,” he said in his closing.

All week, Reed sat at the defense table with a look of keen attention. He rarely took his eyes off the attorneys as they argued or cross-examined, except to take energetic notes or pull a discreet puff of an inhaler. The stakes for him are high, but not quite the same as those of a typical murder defendant.

Cook County Circuit Judge Steven Watkins, not a jury, has been tasked with deciding Reed’s fate. He said Thursday he will announce his finding — guilty or not guilty — next month.

Due to a strange and possibly unprecedented set of circumstances, though, the decision might have little in the way of practical consequences for Reed. If Watkins convicts him, he cannot go back to prison for the murders. But even if Watkins acquits him, he is heading back to prison regardless, since he is in the middle of a sentence for a robbery conviction out of Indiana.

Pamela Powers and Willie Williams were killed in October 1990. Powers, shot twice in the head, was found half-naked and fighting for breath under a viaduct near Englewood’s Kennedy-King College; she was pronounced dead not long afterward. Williams was found fatally shot in Powers’ ransacked apartment.

No physical evidence ties Reed or his long-convicted co-defendant, David Turner, to the crime, and there are no eyewitnesses to the shootings themselves. Prosecutors could not use the confession that Reed has long alleged he only gave after a detective kicked him so hard it broke the metal rod implanted in his leg.

But, prosecutors pointed out, in the hours before the shooting, witnesses saw Reed with a frightened-looking Powers, who was shoeless and jacketless on a chilly October night. The bullets that killed Powers and Williams were fired from the same gun that Turner and Reed had access to, and Turner was known to have handled it not long before the killings. Two people testified at Reed’s first trial, in 1993, that Reed told them he killed someone.

“A 2½-hour time frame, three-block radius and the same gun. Judge, they did it,” special prosecutor Robert Milan said Thursday in closing arguments. “No one else brought Pamela Powers into the apartment … no one else coasted her into the bathroom … no one else bragged to two young men.”

Reed’s attorneys slammed prosecutors’ story as thoroughly speculative. It is a red flag, Zinger said, that prosecutors do not have a theory as to which man — Reed or Turner — actually pulled the trigger.

“All we have here is guesswork, here is what they think happened,” he said. “… How does the state know, realistically, that David didn’t do this murder and Gerald was playing cards? … It’s just speculation, and speculation is not proof beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Trying a case with three-decade-old evidence presents obvious challenges. One crucial witness is dead. Prosecutors noted that in her previous under-oath testimony, the witness said Powers came into her apartment that night with Reed close behind her, and Reed pushed her into the washroom and asked, “Where is the (expletive) money?”

Years later, defense attorneys said in court filings, that witness told her children the testimony she had given was false. But since she is dead, that previous testimony was entered into the record at this year’s trial. While Watkins had ruled that her daughter could testify about whether she saw police mistreat her mother, she was ultimately not called as a witness.

Two witnesses who did testify both had, as one attorney called it, “amnesia.”

DeShawn Jackson and William Turner had testified at Reed’s original trial that Reed came up to them not long after the shooting and asked if they had heard about someone getting killed. When they said they hadn’t, Reed responded by saying, “Anyway, I did it,” and pulled up his shirt to reveal a gun, according to the prior testimony.

They both later recanted that testimony, according to court filings.

But on the witness stand Wednesday, Jackson said over and over that he didn’t remember anything — not about his 1993 testimony, and not about the version of events in the affidavit he signed.

He has been clean and sober for nearly a decade, he testified, but his time using cocaine and marijuana took a toll on his memory.

“I don’t remember nothing from the ’90s,” he said. “Too many drugs.”

But William Turner’s recent time on the stand should be considered more credible, Zinger said in closing arguments — urging Watkins to take seriously Turner’s claim that he and Jackson were coerced by a relative into giving a phony story.

“They both had amnesia,” Zinger said. “I think it’s very clear William Turner told this court the truth.”

The central witness was Mia Grover, who testified Monday via a Zoom link due to her poor health.

She described seeing Powers enter an apartment building, shoeless and jacketless and looking scared, with Reed following closely behind her.

Later, listening in at a closed apartment door, she said she heard Turner say, “We’re not gonna have this (expletive), bitch,” and then later overheard Reed say he could get a car.

“David said he didn’t need a car, he could drop this bitch behind Kennedy-King,” Grover testified.

In closing arguments, Zinger said Grover “followed the script well” but was ultimately not reliable.

Zinger noted that according to a police document, Grover’s previous statement to detectives had some discrepancies with her current testimony — perhaps most prominently, she told detectives Turner told her “that guy came over and got” Powers. Whoever that guy was may well have done the shooting, Zinger said.

And if Grover was so scared that night, as she had testified, she would have called the police, Zinger said.

But ultimately, the time frame was so tight and the locations of the crime scenes so close together that Reed and Turner are the only logical suspects, Milan said in closing arguments.

One of Powers’ neighbors heard gunshots coming from Powers’ apartment only about 15 minutes before witnesses saw Reed follow Powers up the staircase in a nearby apartment building, Milan pointed out.

“You would have to believe someone else went to kill Willie Williams and within a 15-minute period, someone handed (Powers) over to (Reed),” Milan said. “As if there was some kind of chain of bad guys.”

But Zinger said most of the prosecution’s case amounts to speculation.

“No fingerprints, no murder weapon, no (gunshot residue), no nothing,” he said in closing argument. “No eyewitnesses to either murder.”