Darby Tillis, sentenced to death in Illinois October 15, 1979 is among one of the first to be exonerated from death row. New evidence led to his release January 21, 1987. Tillis, in 2007 "Celebrated 20 Years of Freedom."

He is a fiery and outspoken advocate of the abolition of the death penalty and for a fair and just judicial system. He wrote, directed and produced a one-man play, "Dead Wrong," "Death Row Blues." As songwriter, harmonica player and singer he produced a CD about his death row experience and his life afterwards called "Death To Life." In an interview in the April 2007 publication of the New Abolitionist asked about his inspiration he answers, "Each day, I look for a different twist as to how to expose the horrors of death row and the flawed system to the public. My CD was singing. The play is singing and dramatizing the pain and the hurt that was done to me by the system. It's another way of opening the door for people to peep into this painful ordeal."

In 2006 Tillis played the role of Stanley Tookie Williams in a reenactment of a botched execution that led to California's moratorium on the basis of cruel and unusual punishment. In 2007 Tillis testified before the Senate Finance Committee in in support of an abolition bill in Illinois saying "The time to abolish the death penalty is now!" In November, 2007 he joined with 17 death row exonerees in Raleigh, N.C. in a call for a moratorium on executions in that state.

He has preached, worked and walked among gang members and drug abusers, fed the homeless and helped the fallen and oppressed as founder and director of WXO.FM, Working with Ex-offenders and Family Members. He continues to speak throughout the country at colleges, to youth groups, churches and abolition groups. Most recently, he will begin a Death Row Shuffle Tour speaking and singing in high schools to youth groups in communities impacted by the criminal justice system through a grant (Fire This Time Fund 2008 Funded Project) with the Campaign To End The Death Penalty. "The hope is that youth will learn from Darby's personal experience, songs and storytelling and feel empowered to organize themselves and as agents of social change."


On November 13, 1977, two white men were murdered during an armed robbery on Chicago's north side. There was no physical evidence to link Tillis to the crime (after refusing to lie for a $5,000 reward in exchange for the lives of two other men, he was charged with the crime).

The only evidence against Tillis was the testimony of Phyllis Santini, who went to the police with a story, which implicated Darby Tillis and his co-defendent. They both claimed their innocence, after being arrested and convicted in this matter. Tillis spent 9 years in all three Illinois maximum security prisons. Their plight had them caught up in the system where they had three jury trials, two resulting in hung juries and the third in a death sentence. Darby Tillis and his co-defendent were the only defendants in the history of the United States to be tried five times.

Darby Tillis, a victim imprisoned for a crime he did not commit had five separate court trials before the judicial system gave him his freedom. Phyllis Santini had indicated that she and her boyfriend (Johnny Brown) committed the robbery of a restaurant where her boyfriend shot someone during the robbery. The prosecutors proceeded with the prosecution of Tillis - seeking the death penalty.

The defense attorneys alleged that the prosecution - Robart Boharic and Kenneth Malatesia for the first two trials, and William Haddad and Malatesta at the third, systematically used tenacious tactics to exclude black jurors. The fourth trial - a hung jury- but the fifth resulted in Tillis and his co-defendent both getting their freedom. An important fact that the media, social organizations, nor the court dealt with was that the jury recommended the death penalty for both Tillis and his co-defendant.

Michael A. Ficaro, Deputy Cook County States Attorney stated, "this was a vicious murder which resulted in two hung juries...we will certainly put whatever effort is necessary to prosecute this case, even if we have to prosecute this three more times."

The testimony of Michael J. Falconer, an assistant states attorney in Lake County (north of Cook County where the case was tried), formerly worked for the U.S. Justice Department's Organized Crime Strike Force in Chicago, and also previously worked with Santini in a factory, claimed that Santini told him that she and Brown had robbed a restaurant and that Brown had shot someone during the robbery.

The Illinois Supreme Court held that Judge Maloney abused discretion in not allowing the defense to call a witness named Patricia Usmani who would testify that Santini admitted in her presence that she, Brown and two unidentified men were in the diner together and the Brown fired the fatal shots. The prosecution objected to Usmani's testimony, which would have offered reasonable doubt of Tillis' involvement in the crime. Santini provided testimony in this case to the prosecution for payments made to her by the prosecution. Ms. Santini told Falconer that she was trying to get the best deal she could from he state and expected the prosecutors to help her make her car payments and help one of the children who was in "trouble." Santini and Brown have never been charged with any crime in this case.