A Chicago Street Encounter With a Man Nearly Executed


He drives a white Cadillac stretch limo, vintage 1970s, with whitewall tires, black vinyl roof, leather interior.  Smooth ride. It’s the kind of car you might have seen ferrying newlyweds back in its day. But instead of “just married,” painted on the rear bumper, there’s a message crudely lettered in slashes of red paint. “Stop Killing One Another.” The sides of the limo say “Love Your Brother,” and “Thou Shalt Not Kill.”  A crucifix hangs from the rear view mirror and a red Holy Bible sits on the dashboard. The car takes up two spaces on the street here on Chicago’s far North Side where shootings, stabbings and robbery are commonplace.

The driver gets out and locks his limo. He’s a big man, about six feet tall, broad shouldered, more soft than solid around his midsection. He wears a full-length black leather coat, black trousers, black shirt, black hat, black boots with extended toes that taper into a small square at the tip and has a gold chain with Jesus on a cross around his neck. He walks down the street in a strained, lumbering gait with the aid of a cane. He seems old and tired. I’ve seen him walking around my neighborhood on several occasions and realized that I recognize this man.

He is Darby Tillis.

Darby Tillis was sent to Death Row in 1979 for a murder and armed robbery he did not commit. Spent nine years in the joint and went through four trials before someone found the main witness was lying. He was the first of 18 men freed from Illinois’ Death Row because they were railroaded and wrongly convicted and illustrated how broken the system was.

And here is Tillis now, walking around my neighborhood, driving a big old Cadillac stretch limo. I call out his name and introduce myself. I ask how he’s doing, what he’s up to.

“I’m street preaching,” he tells me. “I’ve got my street ministry and I talk to all kinds of people around the city.”

Darby Tillis. Telling his story to anyone who listens. Preaching peace and honesty. Pleading for the abolition of the death penalty. Sharing the good word with addicts and gang bangers.

“What does a man want?” he says. “What does a gang banger want? He wants the respect of his peers. He wants power. Money. Friends. To be part of something larger than himself.”

He stops walking and looks me in the eye. “What does a politician want?”

He waits a beat. “The same thing.”

Darby Tillis was kind of famous some years ago when his injustice was exposed. He told his story on stage, wrote songs, spoke at rallies. “I’ve been on TV and in newspapers all over,” he says. “Now they don’t want to hear me. I was invited to speak at a conference and they changed their mind. Said I was too angry. They say I’m angry. Damn right I’m angry. I spent nine years in prison.”

Darby Tillis. His face is a map of sorrow, of weariness and sometimes hope. Eyes heavy-lidded that do not brighten much even when he manages a smile. Lines. Those lines on his face are creases of not just time but of a thousand pains. A voice tired, tired of repeating, but committed to repeating.

“I went to this restaurant and the waitress sees me all dressed in black and makes a comment about it,” he says. “She tells me ‘get over it.’ Get over it? Get over it? You don’t get over something like this.”

Darby Tillis tries to open people’s eyes and they are repelled. “I met this white girl, a journalist. Told her my story. I took her to the ghetto. Showed her around. She saw things. She told me she went to some party and told people ‘you should see what’s going on in the ghetto.’ They didn’t want to hear it. White folks don’t want to hear it. Don’t want to believe it, man.”

Two months ago, the state of Illinois abolished the death penalty, becoming the 16th state to do it. Tillis had been among the loudest and most consistent voices calling for an end to capital punishment here. About time, he says. But the system remains imperfect. People are still corrupt, people will still lie. Brothers will still go to jail for crimes they did not commit.

Darby Tillis says goodbye and walks down the street, this man clad in black, hobbling with his cane, his crucifix swinging.

He’s not over it.

Kevin Davis is an award-winning journalist, author and magazine writer based in Chicago. A former crime reporter for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, his writing has appeared in USA Today, the Chicago Tribune, Chicago magazine, Utne Reader, In These Times, American Bar Association Journal, Reader’s Digest, USA Weekend, Encyclopaedia Britannica and many other publications. He is the author of two non-fiction books on the criminal justice system, The Wrong Man, and Defending the Damned (recently released in paperback). More from this author →