On Saturday, April 28, the Illinois Innocence Project (IIP) will honor retired Lt. Paul Echols from the Carbondale Police Department for his persistent quest for a posthumous exoneration of Grover Thompson, now 22 years after the innocent man died in prison. The Thompson case exemplifies the problem of racism in southern Illinois and the horrifying challenge of exonerating an individual who has died and is not here to advocate for himself.
In 1981, 46-year-old Thompson was traveling by bus from his sister’s house in Milwaukee to visit family in Mississippi. It was getting dark and Grover, a disabled black man, was tired of traveling. He was given permission to disembark when the bus stopped in Mt.Vernon. The bus station was noisy, so Thompson walked a block to the post office, knowing the lobby would be open and quiet. He laid under a table to rest. In his bag, he had extra clothes and extra socks he needed since he did not wear shoes as a result of his disability.
A white man named Tim Krajcir was across the street next to an apartment building lurking in the bushes. Krajcir, a convicted rapist and certified sexually dangerous person who was on parole, was watching for women to attack at the post office. Since it was a holiday, Krajcir wasn’t having any luck. Frustrated, he saw another possible target, 72-year-old Ida White, who was visible through the window as she prepared for bed.
Krajcir climbed through the bathroom window and jumped about five feet to the floor, something Thompson would have had grave difficulty doing, given his bad leg. Krajcir stabbed Mrs. White repeatedly when she resisted his threats. The only evidence pointing to Thompson was a next door neighbor who claimed he saw a black man wearing a white T-shirt fleeing out the bathroom window when he came into the apartment.
When police were informed there was a black man sleeping under a table inside the post office, they found Grover Thompson dressed in a black button-up sweater with no white T-shirt. The neighbor identified Thompson, but his description changed several times in subsequent interviews. No physical evidence from the crime scene was ever linked to Thompson. Yet he was convicted and sentenced to 40 years in prison.
In 2007, Krajcir confessed to murdering nine women and raping dozens. He also spontaneously confessed to the attack on Mrs. White to Carbondale Lt. Paul Echols and Detective Jimmy Smith of Cape Girardeau, Missouri. In addition to many other crimes, Krajcir provided specific details about attacking Mrs. White, which only the perpetrator could have known. Krajcir also provided an accurate sketch of the victim’s bathroom.
Believing in his uncle’s innocence, Grover Thompson’s nephew, along with the support of the Illinois Innocence Project and professors and law students from Southern Illinois University School of Law, in 2011 filed an Executive Clemency Petition with the Illinois Prisoner Review Board asking for his posthumous exoneration. No one offered any opposition to Thompson’s exoneration.
In December 2015, Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner sent Grover Thompson’s family a one-sentence letter denying Thompson’s posthumous exoneration. The letter did not provide any reason for the denial.
Echols and IIP have not given up on righting a wrong and getting justice for Grover’s family. Echols states, “This case is the poster child of injustice. In my 28 years as a police officer and seven years as a criminal justice professor, this is the most disturbing case of injustice I have ever seen.”
The Illinois Innocence Project continues to work with law enforcement toward our shared goal of “getting it right.” Thompson’s case is but one example of those efforts.
Larry Golden is the founding director of the Illinois Innocence Project.
The 11th annual IIP Defenders of the Innocent Event will be held on Saturday, April 28, starting at 5 p.m. at the Crowne Plaza. Web link: GO.UIS.EDU/DOI2018 or call 217.414.9301. Paul Echols’ book on serial killer Timothy Krajcir will be available for purchase and signing after the event.