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Perry Cobb

Exoneree Name

State: Illinois

Convicted: 1979

Exonerated: 1987

Race: Black

DNA used in exoneration? No

Reasons for wrongful conviction:

False accusation

Snitch testimony

Judicial error


Perry's Wrongful Conviction

Author and singer-songwriter Perry Cobb was tried five times and spent more than a decade in prison and close to nine years on death row for a crime he did not commit. Until very recently, he and his co-defendant held the record for being tried the most times for a single crime. These days, he writes prolifically, visits with friends and family, and carries his strong sense of justice, wisdom, and integrity into his work with fellow exonerees to abolish the death penalty. He speaks clearly and candidly about the effects of his wrongful conviction and the tragic failings and racism of the criminal justice system, making his a vital voice in the movement.

Before his wrongful conviction, Perry worked as an entertainer in nightclubs. His life is quieter now, his world forever rocked by his wrongful incarceration. "Not a day passes when I don’t think about death row, says Mr. Cobb. I had four mistrials and one conviction. I was co-counselor in my fifth trial and I came home. I was never 6’ 11” tall and never light skinned (as witnesses described one of the perpetrators of the murders for which he was accused). I wasn’t a bad guy. I didn’t harm anyone, didn’t rob anyone, didn’t kill anyone. I didn’t need to, I was making a good nickel and dime, I could sing well. We used to rehearse at 25 East Chestnut, that’s on the Gold Coast, on the fourth floor."

In 1977, Perry was charged and sentenced to death along with Darby Tillis for two counts of armed robbery and the murders of Melvin Kanter and Charles Guccion. Neither Mr. Cobb nor Mr. Tillis knew anything about the crime. No physical evidence linked either one to the killing, and they did not know one another. The prosecution’s case relied on the testimony of Phyllis Santini, who went to the police with a false story implicating Perry and Darby. Both men professed their innocence, but police found a watch in Perry’s room that resembled a watch worn by one of the victims. Perry had bought the watch for $10 from Santini's boyfriend, Johnny Brown.

The first two trials resulted in hung juries. The all-white jury in the third trial sentenced both men to death. They spent more than a decade in prison. The Illinois Supreme Court reversed the case in 1983, due to judicial error and blatant racial bias – black people had been aggressively kept off the third trial’s jury. After the reversal, attorney Rob Warden published an article detailing the evidence in the journal Chicago Lawyer. In what turned out to be an important coincidence, Michael Falconer, a recent law graduate from DePaul University, read the article. Falconer happened to be a former co-worker of Phyllis Santini’s. While working together she had confided to Falconer that she and her boyfriend – Johnny Brown – once robbed a restaurant and shot someone.

Phyllis Santini had framed Perry and Darby to cover for herself and her boyfriend Johnny Brown, who had sold Perry the watch that was used as evidence in his conviction. She was paid cash in exchange for her testimony against the co-defendants. A fourth trial was ordered but also ended in a hung jury. Finally, a 1987 bench trial resulted in the exoneration of Perry Cobb and Darby Tillis. They had endured a record five trials for the same charge – at the time, the most trials in American history for a murder charge—and spent years of their lives wrongfully imprisoned on death row. As with most exonerations, the stigma of conviction remained, as Perry says, "They slandered our names. Even if it is not on our record, it is all over the internet. I can’t recoup my name."

Perry's Work Today

Perry is a staunch advocate for truth and justice. He is a leader and role model among his peers, sharing the story of his wrongful conviction, incarceration and exoneration as a speaker along with fellow death row survivors of Witness to Innocence, where he has also served as a Peer Specialist. He is not as socially active as he was before his ordeal, preferring to spend his time writing and with a small circle of trusted friends and family. Perry had been writing songs for a long time when he participated in a storytelling workshop with Witness to Innocence. The feedback he received bolstered his dedication to his writing. One of the facilitators, after hearing him read, said he could “listen to Perry read a telephone book” Perry relates how it affected him - "I had never heard anything like that said about me. It didn’t go to my head, but it went to my heart. He said I brought all the character out. That inspired me to go ahead and write…I sit at my writer’s table, and I write when a thought comes to me, and write until I get tired. Though he had been writing songs for many years, Perry says, I never knew I had any ability to write. I feel kind of good about it. I write about things that are real, things in retrospect, something that people say to me that I remember. I take out the negative, bring the good out, then put the clothes back on it so you can see the heart of the story. Some of it has a lot to do with my experience on death row. Spending time on every death row in the state of Illinois, being tried more times for something I never had anything to do with…to put on paper the pain, the hurt, that’s what gets me."

Perry credits his survival to his fearlessness, strength, wisdom, and the truth that ultimately prevailed. He was not afraid of death. His father taught him to box, and others knew he could fight if he had to and knew that he would always fight for justice. Along with training his body, he trained his mind. "Mind, mind over matter. The matter is what you have to deal with—the guards, and you have the death row men that are there with you. You have got to deal with that. If you are labeled as being a no-nonsense person, that is one plus for you." He spent three years studying law and encouraged his fellow inmates to do the same. The fearlessness and determination that carried him through stirred inspiration and fostered respect in his fellow inmates. It also led those who had power over him to see him as a threat. "They said I was dangerous because I got all the death row guys together. When we were doing law, the whole death row was quiet, all you could hear was typewriters. That’s when they said I was most dangerous man., They moved me to Pontiac, then back to Cook County. Cook County Jail was worse than any death row."

Perry’s strong conviction to speaking truth to power ultimately saved him from execution. He was unafraid to take the witness stand on his own behalf. He had studied the law, so he was well prepared for the tricks that might be used by state’s attorneys. Despite their efforts to hide evidence, facts prevailed, as Perry says, "they could not make me 6’11”. They could not make me light skinned. I had never been there a day in my life. The fingerprints were not mine." If not for his own determination in the face of profound suffering, Perry might not be alive to share his story today. And although he is free, he reminds us of all that can be taken away by the hands of those in power in a cruel and unjust system. "My mother, father, grandfather, my children grew up without me. They cannot give me a second back. They can’t give me back what they took away from me. The truth prevailed in his final trial, and is also at the core of his writing—you see all the roughness on the outside, but when you open it up, you see the heart of the truth to the story, and that’s a good thing."

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