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Weird Justice

Gang enforcer James "Bo Diddley" Williams had already done his time for shooting Lucky Wade. Then Wade died and he found himself on trial for murder.

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The man in the tan jail uniform at the defense table in Courtroom 404 is short--five-foot-one from his cornrows to his white sneakers. But for years Jettie "Bo Diddley" Williams has cast a long shadow on the west side. He's been a brutal lieutenant for a notorious gang, though he says he's through with all that, a notion that makes police and prosecutors roll their eyes.

Now 45, Bo Diddley has spent nearly his entire adult life in the hands of the criminal justice system--or slipping through its fingers. On this August afternoon, in the Cook County Criminal Courthouse, at 26th and California, prosecutors are once again trying to get a firm grip on him.

Bo Diddley turned 17--adult age under Illinois criminal law--on September 3, 1976. Six weeks later he was arrested for armed robbery. Since then he's known only three months of total freedom; the rest of the time he's been in jail awaiting trial, out on bond, in prison, on probation, or on parole. He has convictions for attempted murder, armed robbery, and numerous gun and drug offenses, but his longest stretch behind bars has been just under six years. He's doing life on the installment plan, as lawyers and judges in the courthouse like to say.

That will change if he's convicted today of murdering Leroy "Lucky" Wade. Early on a September morning in 1986 someone flagged down a police officer and directed him to a man lying in an alley near Roosevelt and Pulaski. The man--Lucky--had been shot in the back of the head and neck. Paralyzed, he spent the next eight years in nursing homes and hospitals.

Bo Diddley was charged with the shooting a month after it occurred, and in 1989, after 34 court appearances, he pled guilty to attempted murder. He says he didn't shoot Lucky and made that plea under duress--a transcript of the plea deal shows that the judge threatened him with 45 years if he went to trial and was convicted. He got only 9. With the day-for-day credit that convicts were given on their sentences back then and the credit for the time he'd been in jail while the case was pending, he spent less than three years in prison.

The guilty plea resolved the case--until 1994, when Lucky died. The state indicted Bo Diddley for murder. The law allows prosecutors to charge someone with murder even if the victim doesn't die for years, so long as the victim's death can be attributed to the defendant's actions. Prosecutors maintained that Lucky's paralysis led to the infection that killed him.

Since then Bo Diddley has gone to court on the case 132 times. He was convicted of murder in 2002, but the judge who convicted him, Thomas Sumner, later threw out that verdict and granted him a new trial. The key issue today isn't whether Bo Diddley shot Lucky, but whether the shooting led to Lucky's death.

The jury box is empty because Bo Diddley has again entrusted his fate to Judge Sumner. The gallery is nearly empty as well, but then few cases at 26th Street attract much attention. None of Lucky's relatives or friends are here this afternoon. Lucky's sister testified when the trial opened this morning, but she left at lunchtime. Bo Diddley, who has numerous relatives in Chicago, including five children, says he isn't upset that none of them showed up. "They got enough problems," he says later. "Ain't nobody never there. I got used to being by myself."

While the case was pending he was sometimes free on bond, but he's been in jail since 1999. His mother is dying of cancer in a hospital in Indiana and expected to live only a few more days, and he says a big reason he wants to win today is so he can see her one last time.

Bo Diddley and Lucky were both the eldest sons in large African-American families. Both grew up in North Lawndale, a west-side neighborhood that plummeted from working class to slum when they were small.

Bo Diddley's earliest memories are of his parents fighting--his father slamming his mother to the floor, his mother smashing a bottle over his father's head, his grandmother chasing his father from the house. He was seven when his father moved out. "He went his way," he says. "Mama brung us the rest of the way."

The family lived near 13th and Springfield. Bo Diddley had seven brothers and two sisters, and they had five different fathers, none of whom offered much financial support. Around the age of seven Bo Diddley--his uncle gave him the name because he was bowlegged--began running errands for neighborhood gang members and washing their cars for change. "I got tired of eating beans and salt pork every day and hot-water corn bread three or four times a week," he says. "I was able to help ma put some chicken wings or meat loaf on the table."

He ditched school regularly and soon "just curved off into the streets." Small but fearless, he says he didn't start fights but never backed down from one either. "I might be shooting dice," he says. "Somebody might tell me, 'Little pussy motherfucker, I'll take your money.' 'Bitch, you ain't gonna do nothin' to me.'" At first he got his "butt tore up," but soon he was beating bigger opponents.

He joined the Unknown Vice Lords in his early teens, helping them sell amphetamines and quaaludes and then heroin. At 17 he started snorting heroin and quickly got addicted, and he was charged with shooting a woman in the stomach during a holdup. He pled guilty and was sentenced to ten years.

After he was paroled four years later, he switched from the Unknown Vice Lords to the Traveling Vice Lords. (The Travelers rarely left the west side, except to go to prison.) Vice Lords are ranked in power from one star--the least powerful--to five. According to Bo Diddley, a member rises in rank by "taking care of business," which includes extorting payments from people who want to sell drugs in the gang's territory and beating or shooting anyone who refuses or falls behind. In the 80s Bo Diddley quickly rose to five stars and became the chief enforcer for TVL leader "King Neal" Wallace. Tattooed on his right bicep is "King Neal" inside a five-point star.

Lucky Wade grew up a mile and a half northeast of Bo Diddley, at 11th and Whipple, with his seven younger brothers and four sisters. His sister Ethel Wilson says he was called Lucky from the time he was a child, but she doesn't know why. In grade school he made frequent trips to the juvenile reformatory in Saint Charles for robbery, theft, truancy, and curfew violations. He and his brothers joined a small neighborhood Vice Lord faction, the Albany Vice Lords. The Wade brothers were "extremely violent," says Michael Cronin, deputy chief of narcotics and gang investigations for the Chicago Police Department. At one time or another, five of them faced murder charges; two of them were shot to death. Cronin says the brothers were protective of one another: "On the street they were a real close-knit family. If you messed with the Wades they were gonna come back at you."

Lucky sold drugs with the Albany Vice Lords, got addicted to heroin, and went to prison, for burglary at age 22 and armed robbery at 25. Soon after he was paroled the second time he shot two men, one to death, during an argument. The judge ruled the first shooting was self-defense and acquitted Lucky of murder. But he was convicted of aggravated battery of the second man, and at 27 he returned to prison.

In 1984, a month after he was paroled, Lucky and his brother Michael were shot behind a building in their neighborhood. "They were trying to rob a dope dealer, and the dealer got the best of them," says Cronin. Michael was killed. Lucky was struck in the back and arm and paralyzed. Ethel Wilson says the doctors told him he'd never walk again, "but he was determined." After several months he was limping around the neighborhood, aided by a cane.

In 1986 he was shot and paralyzed again. This was the shooting Bo Diddley was charged with. Cronin tried to interview Lucky at the hospital afterward, but he was on life support and couldn't answer questions.

Wilson says Lucky soon recovered enough to tell siblings that Bo Diddley had shot him. She says her brothers believed that King Neal had ordered him to shoot their brother Alvin. They said Bo Diddley drove to the apartment building where Alvin was living and parked his van out front. But Alvin was busy fighting with a girlfriend. "And here come Lucky down the gangway," says Ethel. "I guess Bo Diddley figured one brother was as good as another." Lucky told his siblings that Bo Diddley suggested the two of them rob a drug dealer, so he got in the van. Then Bo Diddley shot him and dumped him in an alley.

Two weeks after Lucky was shot King Neal was at a minimart at Roosevelt and Sacramento. As he left he was shot in the head, neck, and shoulder. The manager of the minimart rushed to where he was lying in the parking lot and heard him say, "The Wade boys did it to me."

King Neal was rushed to Mount Sinai, the same hospital where Lucky was being treated. Six hours later King Neal died. Alvin and Aaron Wade are now serving prison terms for his murder.

Four days after King Neal was gunned down, Cronin and other officers interviewed Lucky, who told them Bo Diddley had shot him. Bo Diddley says he doesn't know why Lucky pinned the shooting on him. He thinks Lucky was shot because the Wades were trying to muscle other drug dealers out of Albany Vice Lord territory. He says he never would have been so foolish as to shoot Lucky. "You ain't gonna pull no issue off like that--and you got all these other brothers that's left," he says. "That's stupid. And I'm not street stupid at all."

The clearest evidence he didn't do it, Bo Diddley says, are the small-caliber bullets Lucky was shot with. "Cronin know--long as I was in the street, he will tell you, what was Bo Diddley known to carry? A .44 Magnum. I rode with that or with a Mac 11 [a machine gun]. I didn't shoot no little bitty gun. If I was gonna shoot you I was gonna shoot you for real."

One of the perks gang VIPs enjoy is a "tribute"--bond money extracted from the rank and file when the VIPs are arrested. After Bo Diddley was arrested for shooting Lucky his gang quickly bonded him out--and soon he picked up three more drug and gun cases. In 1989 prosecutors offered him six years for pleading guilty in the three cases and nine years for pleading guilty to Lucky's attempted murder. The sentences would run concurrently, so the total time would be just nine years--or four and a half with the day-for-day credit.

Bo Diddley apparently got this "kiss," as lawyers call light sentences, partly in return for information he provided. In 1988 police had found a live hand grenade in his truck--a grenade federal agents believed was planted by a gang dealing in explosives. He says he answered questions from the agents about the gang he thought was responsible.

When Bo Diddley's guilty plea in the attempted murder case was formalized in court the state inadvertently smooched him again. Prosecutor James Bigoness told the judge that if the case had gone to trial Lucky would have testified that Bo Diddley shot him once in the head. Bigoness, now in private practice, says he can't recall why he neglected to mention the shot to the neck--an omission that would later prove to be key. Bigoness hadn't handled the case during the plea negotiations. Guilty pleas are often done hurriedly in court, he says, and "maybe all of the facts weren't analyzed as closely as they should have been."

Meanwhile Lucky's condition was deteriorating. Cronin sometimes visited him in the hospital and usually brought along candy bars. He says he felt sorry for Lucky, who received few other visitors--Lucky's brothers "would go out and kill somebody for revenge for his shooting, but they wouldn't come see him."

On April 14, 1994, Lucky died. A month later the state indicted Bo Diddley for murder. To win the case it would have to show that his shooting of Lucky had led to Lucky's death. This was a tall order, considering the dearth of admissible evidence that Bo Diddley had even done the shooting. The key witness was dead, and his statements to his siblings and police that Bo Diddley had shot him were inadmissible hearsay. And no physical evidence linked Bo Diddley to the crime. All prosecutors had was Bo Diddley's guilty plea, and judges don't always allow guilty pleas to be used as evidence in subsequent trials. When Judge Thomas Sumner barred prosecutors from using the plea--because Bo Diddley hadn't been advised by his lawyer that the plea could be used against him in a murder trial if Lucky died--it seemed the state had lost. The state appealed the ruling, but the appellate court upheld it. The state then appealed to the Illinois Supreme Court.

From 1994 to '98 no one was rushing to finish this case because Bo Diddley was serving a life sentence, having been convicted of armed violence in 1994 after he was caught with guns and drugs in his car. Armed violence is a higher-level felony, a Class X, and because it was Bo Diddley's third Class X conviction, he automatically got life. But in 1998 the appellate court ruled that the police search of his car had been illegal and threw out the conviction, and he was released on bond. The following year the supreme court ruled that the state could use Bo Diddley's guilty plea when it tried him for Lucky's murder, though the jury or the judge hearing the case would have to decide how much weight to give it.

In 2002 Bo Diddley was finally tried for Lucky's murder. He'd waived his right to a jury on the advice of his public defender, Phillip Coffey, who assumed Sumner would give little weight to the guilty plea because Bo Diddley had been threatened with a 45-year sentence. Coffey also thought that even if Sumner considered the plea an admission by Bo Diddley that he'd shot Lucky, it was only an admission that he'd shot him in the head. As a medical examiner acknowledged during the trial, it was the shot to the neck that had caused the paralysis that might have led to Lucky's death. Coffey says he thought Bo Diddley's acquittal was a "foregone conclusion."

He was wrong. Sumner observed that he wasn't "naive enough to believe that every person who enters a guilty plea does so because they committed the crime for which they are charged," but he convicted Bo Diddley anyway. Coffey, sure of victory, hadn't put Bo Diddley on the stand to testify about the pressure he says he felt to plead guilty, and Sumner noted that no evidence had been introduced that cast doubt on Bo Diddley's tacit admission in the plea that he shot Lucky. The judge ignored Coffey's argument that Bo Diddley hadn't admitted to shooting Lucky in the neck, saying he believed Bo Diddley shot Lucky and that the shooting had led to Lucky's death.

Sumner scheduled sentencing for the following month, but he postponed it after Bo Diddley submitted a posttrial motion, written with the help of another inmate, claiming that he'd been denied a fair trial because of his public defender's "ineffective assistance." Sumner later appointed Daniel Coyne, a private lawyer, to represent Bo Diddley on that motion. Coyne combed through stacks of Lucky's medical records and found a crucial diagnosis Coffey hadn't mentioned: shortly before his death, Lucky had been treated for a urethral stricture, an abnormal narrowing of the urethra. As Coyne pointed out to Sumner, the stricture could have led to the infection that caused Lucky's death. In June 2004 Sumner threw out the conviction and granted Bo Diddley a new trial.

Medical examiner Dr. Wendy Lavezzi has a confident air on the stand as she fields questions from prosecutor Joe Keating in Courtroom 404. The medical examiner who conducted Lucky's autopsy, Dr. Tae Lyong An, has retired. Lavezzi tells Judge Sumner she reviewed An's autopsy report and testimony in the 2002 trial, looked at photos taken at the autopsy, and read a medical summary from the hospital where Lucky spent his last four years. An had concluded that Lucky contracted sepsis, which Lavezzi explains is an infection of the blood that's often fatal. She says Lucky had bedsores on a hip and on a toe, wounds that put him at risk of contracting sepsis, and that he was also suffering from a urinary-tract infection--common in paraplegics and another frequent source of sepsis.

Lavezzi then describes the locations of the bullets recovered during the autopsy. One apparently entered the back of the head and lodged in a rear lobe of Lucky's brain. A second was recovered from the spinal canal in his neck. Lavezzi says the spinal cord was damaged there, so this bullet likely caused the paralysis. These two bullets were small; a third, medium-sized bullet was recovered a little lower in the spine. This bullet, which Lavezzi says could also have caused paralysis, was presumably the one from the earlier shooting.

Keating asks Lavezzi what she thinks caused Lucky's death.

"Multiple gunshot wounds," she says without hesitation.

And the manner? Keating asks.

"Homicide."

On his cross-examination Coyne first tries to emphasize that the gunshot to Lucky's head--the one mentioned in Bo Diddley's guilty plea--didn't cause Lucky's paralysis and therefore didn't lead to his death.

Lavezzi concedes the point. She also concedes she didn't review all the records from the hospital where Lucky died.

Coyne shows her one record she didn't see and asks if it indicates that Lucky had a urethral stricture. Lavezzi allows that it does and allows that she hadn't been aware of the stricture. She says that while a urethral stricture can be the consequence of infections, it also can be congenital, and it isn't clear which was true in Lucky's case.

Coyne shows her a record of a urology consultation Lucky had following an acute urinary obstruction two days before his death. He also shows her a document dated the day before Lucky's death indicating he was suffering from a "severe urethral stricture." Coyne asks Lavezzi if such a stricture can lead to urinary-tract infections that can cause sepsis. She says it can.

"So you can't say within a reasonable degree of medical certainty what caused the sepsis?" Coyne asks.

"If I--yeah--no," Lavezzi says.

After Lavezzi leaves the stand the prosecutors submit a transcript of Bo Diddley's guilty plea, and then the state rests.

Coyne asks Sumner for a "directed finding," a ruling acquitting the defendant without the defense even putting on a case. Defense lawyers routinely make this motion after the state has finished its case, and judges routinely dismiss it. A judge can grant the motion only if he concludes that the evidence the prosecutors have presented, viewed in the light most favorable to the state, isn't sufficient to convict.

Arguing for the motion, Coyne reminds Sumner that the sole evidence that Bo Diddley shot Lucky, the guilty plea, says he shot him once in the head and that Lavezzi acknowledged that this shot didn't paralyze Lucky. He also reminds the judge that Lavezzi couldn't say for sure whether Lucky's sepsis had been the result of a bedsore or his urethral stricture, or whether the stricture was congenital or a product of his paralysis. He concludes, "So we don't know what it is that killed the victim."

Keating responds that if Bo Diddley was responsible for the shot to Lucky's head it was safe to assume he was also responsible for the shot to the neck, since the bullets recovered from the brain and the neck were both small caliber. He says there was no evidence that Lucky's urethral stricture was congenital, that it more likely was a product of an infection he got from a urethral catheter, which he'd probably had (the records aren't clear) because he was paralyzed.

Coyne replies that the state could have had forensic experts compare the two bullets to prove they'd come from the same gun but that the state didn't. (A spokesperson for the state's attorney's office says later that the bullets were too distorted and calcified to be compared.) He also says it was up to prosecutors to prove that the urethral stricture resulted from an infection related to the treatment of Lucky's paralysis and they didn't.

Bo Diddley is sitting with his chin in his hands when Sumner begins issuing his ruling. The judge says he learned more about Lucky's condition at this trial than at the first. He echoes Coyne's points that the guilty plea said nothing about a shot to the neck and that Lavezzi couldn't say definitely what caused the sepsis. "I can't sit here and speculate what was the cause," he says. "The cause of death was the single issue in this case. That was the determining factor." Even viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the state, he says, he must decide whether the state has met its burden regarding the cause of death. "And I have to say the state has not. . . . The motion will be granted."

After 19 years and 166 court dates the case is closed. Smiling slightly, Bo Diddley shakes Coyne's hand. "Can't believe it," he says softly.

Keating shrugs his shoulders and tells Sumner, "Finality is a good thing."

Bo Diddley's mother couldn't speak when he visited her in the hospital the day after he was released, but when he squeezed her hand she looked at him and blinked. He was gratified by that, but the sight of her withered body connected to tubes also filled him with guilt. She died a week after he was freed.

Three weeks later, on September 3, Bo Diddley turned 46. He was living with his girlfriend and her family in the Austin neighborhood on the west side. He said that at the request of a community leader he'd given an antigang talk to a group of young men at a west-side park. "I thought I owned the street corner, but I'm here to tell you that you don't own no streets," he told them. "You a damn fool to think you do."

He said he'd intervened in several gang quarrels, persuading the parties to resolve their differences peacefully. He also said he'd told gang leaders, "When you get through fighting there gonna be no winners. One of y'all might be dead. Both of y'all might be wounded. Somebody going to jail. And it'll be grief and sorrow among the families." He said he'd reached a different stage in life. Two of his sons are grown, and two more are in their teens. "I don't want them to be slaughtered in the street from the stupidity of the street," he said. Two years ago his oldest son, then 20, was arrested for a drug offense and became Bo Diddley's cell mate. He said it troubled him deeply to see his son following in his footsteps.

He said he was looking for a legitimate job, but with a resume studded with felony convictions, his search often seemed hopeless. "But that's where you got to be strong," he said. "If I got to be broke out here I have to deal with it until something on a positive level come through to help me provide for my family. If I let anger and frustration gain control of me now I might take back to the streets and lash out." He said gangbanging and drug dealing were games "played by children. At some point you gotta grow up and be a man. I wore browns and blues the last 20 years of my life. I ain't fittin' to jump out there and get into nothin'."

But on October 3, two months after he'd been acquitted, Bo Diddley got arrested again. That afternoon a swarm of police officers armed with a search warrant came to the house on North Laramie where he was living. According to the arrest report, officers "forced entry into residence after knocking several times." According to Bo Diddley's girlfriend, who was there, the officers "knocked with their feet." The arrest report says that during the officers' "systematic search of the residence" Bo Diddley "was observed with a black plate which contained 89 tinfoil packets each containing suspect heroin and one large plastic baggie containing suspect cocaine."

Bo Diddley says he was one of about eight people in the house at the time and was watching TV in an upstairs bedroom. He scoffs at the allegation that officers caught him with any drugs: "If I'm gonna hold onto drugs when they coming in I got to be the biggest, stupidest fool in America." He says the police charged him--and none of the other people in the house--because they're intent on putting him away. He says he doesn't know where the officers found the drugs, but he suspects they were stashed in the house by one of his sons, who continue to hang out with drug dealers despite his warnings. "They're gonna do what they have to do," he says, "but they got me caught up in the rapture."

A judge set bond at $50,000, and Bo Diddley had to come up with 10 percent to be freed. He says he's "broker than a motherfucker," but after four days his relatives and his girlfriend's scraped together the $5,000. In late October a grand jury indicted him, and last week his case was assigned to a trial judge. He's due back in court on December 14.

Bo Diddley says that if he wins again he'll leave Chicago, since there's no way for him to stay out of trouble here no matter what he does. "It's very frustrating," he says. "It's mind puzzling. Why does it seem this lunacy always got to find its way back on my doorstep?"

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Paul L. Merideth.

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