CHICAGO (CBS) — James Bannister is more than 30 years into a life sentence for a crime he has always said he did not commit, so when a recent jailhouse confession took away evidence against him, why didn’t he get a chance at freedom?
“Everything. I missed everything. I missed everything,” he said.READ MORE: City Council To Meet Again Friday With Renaming Lake Shore Drive On Agenda
Bannister spoke with CBS 2 Investigator Megan Hickey from Stateville Correctional Center, a maximum security state prison for men.
He was amazed by the Zoom call. He is amazed by most technology, actually.
“This that we are speaking on right now, it’s amazing,” he said. “I’ve never, never spoken on one of these before.”
That is because he has been wearing a blue jumpsuit as the evolving world passed him by for most of his life.
“I’ve been here 31 years,” he said.
Thirty-one years is a long time. And what was his heinous crime? To even begin to understand, the CBS 2 Investigators had to dig in the archives of the Harold Washington Library.
Tucked deep in the crime reports the details started to develop.
It was November of 1989. A one-in-a-million stray bullet shot through the window of a building on the campus of the Illinois Institute of Technology. That bullet killed an innocent security guard — Thomas Kaufman — and another man who was the intended target — Dan Williams.
“Police say there’s a strong suspicion that Williams was shot as a result of a feud between two warring families,” CBS 2 reporter Burleigh Hines said in a report at the time. “Kaufman’s death was just a tragic mistake.”
There was not one suspect, but seven. Seven men were arrested and charged. Bannister was one of them.
Bullet casings, shattered glass, droplets of blood were meticulously documented at the scene. Not a shred of evidence pointed to him. The only thing that did — or the only person who did — was a 12-year-old boy.
“Miraculously, this 12-year-old appears, says he was a witness to the crime,” said Jennifer Blagg, Bannister’s post conviction attorney.
She was amazed that a jury convicted Bannister in 1991 based on the inconsistent statements of a preteen, especially when multiple people corroborated Bannister’s alibi that he was at his mother’s home during the shooting.
“I was miles away at my mom’s house,” he said. “Witnesses testify to that.”
Bannister and the others were sentenced to life in prison.
Nearly a decade passed, and then the 12-year-old boy who’d claimed he witnessed it all admitted he lied about it.
Bannister and one co-defendant were given a new trial.
“The judge made a big deal about, ‘Well this was the first time in 20 years that I disagreed with the jury. I would have found James Bannister innocent,'” said Blagg.READ MORE: Man Stabbed On CTA Blue Line Train
Blagg said he said that to him twice.
“When I went back to the second trial, I knew that the truth’s gonna come out,” she said.
But then there was a bombshell. Two days before trial number two, Bannister’s defense team learned one of his co-defendants — a man named Michael Johnson, who was also serving a life sentence for the shootings, had been approached by prosecutors and given the deal of a lifetime: Make a sworn statement that Bannister was there and his life sentence would turn into 60 years — with day for day credit — which meant with the time he’d already served — he’d get out in 2021.
So he took that deal.
And on that testimony, James Bannister was convicted again.
“It was devastating,” Bannister said. “You want to talk. That was hard. That was hard try to keep your composure while lies being told.”
Still, Bannister kept on fighting, urging his attorney to go visit Michael Johnson in prison.
She did in 2019, and with nothing to gain or lose, Johnson said he was ready to tell the truth. So she went back with the former head of the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office’s Conviction Integrity Unit and captured Johnson’s confession:
“The reason that man is in prison is because of me. I know I came to court and lied in court but I’ll say this until I die: James Bannister had nothing to do with that case. The rest of us we had something to do with it. I’m putting myself there. We had something to do with it.”
In a videotaped confession, Johnson said he took the deal because he wanted to get out of his life sentence and to transfer out of the super-max security prison he was in downstate. And he was sorry for doing it.
Listening to those words finally come out of Johnson’s mouth brought Bannister to tears. He was fighting back tears just talking about it.
With the stunning confession on tape, Bannister and his attorney thought they would be hearing from the Cook County States Attorney’s office Conviction Integrity Unit any day. But days turned into weeks, into months, and nothing.
“The new head of the unit didn’t agree that it was enough,” said Blagg.
The CBS 2 Investigators reached out to the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office about the new evidence, asking why the videotaped confession wasn’t enough to take action on this case. A spokesperson said they couldn’t comment specifically because the case is still going through post-conviction proceedings but also said, “In our continuing commitment to seeking justice, the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office Conviction Integrity Unit conducted a thorough review of this case.”
“Was all of that for nothing?” Bannister said.
Bannister, now 55 years old, and his attorney say they’re not done fighting. And they would like for Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, who revamped the Conviction Integrity Unit, to review the case herself.
“The right thing to do is to say this conviction has no integrity and let James Bannister go,” said Blagg.
“So I would like for her response to take a look at the facts, okay,” said Bannister.MORE NEWS: 'Work-Share Illinois' Helping Workers Who Are Partially Laid Off By Employers
The Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office tells CBS 2 since 2016 it has vacated 118 cases. Michael Johnson declined a followup on camera interview, saying he just wants to focus on his release, which is set in December.