If IL does not do this now, then when will it do so?

Posted: November 7, 2011 by smallmouth63 in IDOC, IL in Fiscal Ruins, Prosecutorial Misconduct, Terrible Wrongs - Other Cases, The Causes of Wrongful Convictions

Illinois is one of the states with the most convictions being overturned because individuals are found to be wrongfully convicted. With IL prisons filled to the max and state prosecutors still pushing to incarcerate even low-level offenders, there are no protections in place to ensure that individuals are not wrongfully convicted. There are only a few innocence projects in IL and one of them is even the target of state prosecutors. Even though Governor Pat Quinn abolished the death penalty in IL, more has to be done to curb the abuse of authority in criminal prosecutions and the problems which have recently appeared in the state prison system. IL needs to establish a special commission, such as North Carolina has done in order to review individual cases for wrongful convictions.


Hands in Chains, by Worradmu

Five teenagers were wrongfully convicted of the 1991 rape and murder of a teenage girl, Cateresa Matthews. Robert Taylor, James Harden and Jonathan Barr are now the last three individuals set free this week after DNA evidence showed that none of the five teenagers were, in fact, guilt despite each of their convictions. It took 20 years and the combined efforts of three of the nation’s innocence projects: the Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth, the New York Innocence Project and the University of Chicago Exoneration Project, to finally clear and free the men. The projects persevered in locating the DNA evidence despite being told repeatedly during a year-and-a-half that it did not exist. DNA testing cleared the five of involvement and instead implicates another man whom authorities now regard as a suspect.

James Harden Freed After Nearly 20 Years In Prison For Murder He Did Not Commit 

Northwestern’s Center on Wrongful Convictions helps exonerate three men

Wrongly jailed Harvey man released after almost 20 years

Harden and Barr are brothers whose parents died during their imprisonment; their mother died while on the way to see them. “…”It’s an absolutely horrible thing that the state of Illinois has done to these children,” (Rob) Warden (Center on Wrongful Convictions) said. “The police coerced false confessions from three of these five kids. We think the police should not be able to lie to you about the strength (of their evidence). That practice ought to be banned…”

Friday, Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn, felt compelled to point out that even when someone has been proven, by science, to be innocent, the state too often refuses to admit that it made a costly mistake and is unwilling to do what is required to avoid the same error in the future. In his column below, he cites the comment by Anita Alvarez, who has been controversial in her own prosecutions:

                            The most perplexing and troubling thing about this case for me is that I don’t think we know exactly what                                happened here. It’s convoluted and confusing. I don’t believe we can say for sure that they’re innocent…. Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez, interviewed Thursday after her office asked a judge to vacate the murder convictions of five men.

Alvarez does right, but gets it wrong

The article below appears in the July 2011, issue of reason.com, and tells the story of Paul House, cleared only because the US Supreme Court stepped in with the rare ruling that he should have a new trial, and then DNA testing showed incriminating evidence did not belong to him, but to the husband of the victim who had not even been tested at the time of the crime. As the article notes, if prosecutors and states were open to testing DNA evidence in all convictions, the numbers of those found to be wrongly accused might increase tremendously:

Wrongful Convictions

How many innocent Americans are behind bars?

“…It’s notable that one of the few places in America where a district attorney has specifically dedicated staff and resources to seeking out bad convictions—Dallas County, Texas—has produced more exonerations than all but a handful of states. That’s partly because Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins is more interested in reopening old cases than his counterparts elsewhere, and partly because of a historical quirk: Since the early 1980s the county has been sending biological crime scene evidence to a private crime lab for testing, and that lab has kept the evidence well preserved. Few states require such evidence be preserved once a defendant has exhausted his appeals, and in some jurisdictions the evidence is routinely destroyed at that point.

“I don’t think there was anything unique about the way Dallas was prosecuting crimes,” Watkins told me in 2008. “It’s unfortunate that other places didn’t preserve evidence too. We’re just in a unique position where I can look at a case, test DNA evidence from that period, and say without a doubt that a person is innocent.…But that doesn’t mean other places don’t have the same problems Dallas had.”

If the rest of the country has an actual (but undetected) wrongful conviction rate as high as Dallas County’s, the number of innocents in prison for felony crimes could be in the tens of thousands..”

Reason.com points out the main causes of wrongful convictions, including:

“…Bad forensic evidence. DNA technology was developed by scientists, and it has been thoroughly peer-reviewed by other scientists. Most of the forensic science used in the courtroom, on the other hand, was either invented in police stations and crime labs or has been refined and revised there to fight crime and obtain convictions. Most forensic evidence isn’t peer-reviewed, isn’t subject to blind testing, and is susceptible to corrupting bias, both intentional and unintentional. The most careful analysts can fall victim to cognitive bias creeping into their work, particularly when their lab falls under the auspices of a law enforcement agency. Even fingerprint analysis isn’t as sound as is commonly believed.

A congressionaly commissioned 2009 report by the National Academy of Sciences found that many other forensic specialties that are often presented in court with the gloss of science—hair and carpet fiber analysis, blood spatter analysis, shoe print identification, and especially bite mark analysis—lack the standards, peer review, and testing procedures of genuinely scientific research and analysis. Some are not supported by any scientific literature at all. Moreover, the report found, even the forensic specialties with some scientific support are often portrayed in court in ways that play down error rates and cognitive bias.

According to an Innocence Project analysis of the first 225 DNA exonerations, flawed or fraudulent forensic evidence factored into about half of the faulty convictions.

Eyewitness testimony. Social scientists have known about the inherent weakness of eyewitness testimony for decades. Yet it continues to be the leading cause of wrongful convictions in America; it was a factor in 77 percent of those first 225 cases. Simple steps, such as making sure police who administer lineups have no knowledge of the case (since they can give subtle clues to witnesses, even unintentionally) and that witnesses are told that the actual perpetrator may not be among the photos included in a lineup, can go a long way toward improving accuracy. But such reforms also make it more difficult to win convictions, so many jurisdictions, under pressure from police and prosecutor groups, have been hesitant to embrace them.

False confessions. Difficult as it may be to comprehend, people do confess to crimes they didn’t commit. It happened in about one-quarter of the first 225 DNA exonerations. Confessions are more common among suspects who are minors or are mentally handicapped, but they can happen in other contexts as well, particularly after intense or abusive police interrogations.

In a candid 2008 op-ed piece for the Los Angeles Times, D.C. Police Detective Jim Trainum detailed how he unwittingly coaxed a false confession out of a 34-year-old woman he suspected of murder. She even revealed details about the crime that could only have been known to police investigators and the killer. But Trainum later discovered that the woman couldn’t possibly have committed the crime. When he reviewed video of his interrogation, he realized that he had inadvertently provided the woman with those very specific details, which she then repeated back to him when she was ready to confess.

Trainum concluded that all police interrogations should be videotaped, a policy that would not just discourage abusive questioning but also provide an incontrovertible record of how a suspect’s confession was obtained. Here too, however, there has been pushback from some police agencies, out of fear that jurors may be turned off even by legitimate forms of questioning.

Jailhouse informants. If you were to take every jailhouse informant at his word, you’d find that a remarkably high percentage of the people accused of felonies boast about their crimes to the complete strangers they meet in jail and prison cells. (See “The Guilt Market,” page 24.) Informants are particularly valuable in federal drug cases, where helping a prosecutor obtain more convictions is often the only way to get time cut from a mandatory minimum sentence. That gives them a pretty good incentive to lie.

There is some disagreement over a prosecutor’s duty to verify the testimony he solicits from jailhouse informants. In the 2006, Church Point, Louisiana, case of Ann Colomb, for example, Brett Grayson, an assistant U.S. attorney in Louisiana, put on a parade of jailhouse informants whose claims about buying drugs from Colomb and her sons were rather improbable, especially when the sum of their testimony was considered as a whole. According to defense attorneys I spoke with, when one attorney asked him if he actually believed what his informants were telling the jury, Grayson replied that it doesn’t matter if he believes his witnesses; it only matters if the jury does. He expressed a similar sentiment in his closing argument.

After indicating that he isn’t familiar with the Colomb case and isn’t commenting on Grayson specifically, Josh Marquis says that sentiment is wrong. “A prosecutor absolutely has a duty to only put on evidence he believes is truthful,” Marquis says. “And that includes the testimony you put on from informants…”

On the heels of the acquittal of Casey Anthony, here in the USA, everyone was transfixed by the seemingly unlikely successful appeal by Amanda Knox, of her conviction in an Italian Court of the 2007 murder of Meredith Kercher. Yet, legal experts point out that while America affords criminal defendants more rights and protections before conviction than other countries; the reverse is often true after conviction, and in Italy, it perhaps is not so surprising that Amanda Knox succeeded in her appeal when one looks at the Italian appeal process. It becomes very difficult here for inmates to succeed on appeal because legal review in the USA mostly looks at only the legal and not the factual issues in cases. Even those individuals who are proven innocent through DNA testing have mostly lost at varies levels of the appeal process. State and federal courts most frequently decline review without even having to give any reason why. In Italy, the appeal process involves a brand new trial where all evidence and testimony is analyzed in the same terms as the first trial, but higher standards have to be met. And, unlike the state and US Supreme courts, the Italian Supreme Court cannot refuse to review a case. Italian defendants also have unlimited appeal rights to the Supreme Court of Cassation. That explains why the Italian Supreme Court will issue about 30,000 decisions per year in comparison to the 120 or so by the US Supreme Court. Italians can in fact appeal to the Supreme Court directly after the first trial.

How the Italian Appeal Process Works

“…Besides the broad appeal rights granted by the Italian law, an ulterior incentive to appeal is given by the fact that Italy has a very high “Reversal Rate” during the appeal process. Approximately half of all sentences rendered in the first trial are in fact reversed during the appeal process, a percentage which is 3 times higher than France for example. The ones that are not reversed often see a decrease in punishment.

No surprise therefore that Italians always appeal their sentences. And some analysts have even ventured to say that Italian appeal courts like to modify the sentences of the first trial just for the purpose of justifying their own existence. ..”


“…Wrongful convictions of men and women for violent crimes in Illinois have cost taxpayers $214 million and have imprisoned innocent people for 926 years, according to a seven-month investigation by the Better Government Association and the Center on Wrongful Convictions.

The joint investigation, which tracked exonerations from 1989 through 2010, also determined that while 85 people were wrongfully incarcerated, the actual perpetrators were on a collective crime spree that included 14 murders, 11 sexual assaults, 10 kidnappings and at least 62 other felonies…”

In January 2000, Illinois Governor George Ryan issued a moratorium on executions and appointed a commission to study capital punishment in Illinois to prevent the execution of the innocent.

The 15-member commission met for two years and then dissolved after issuing a report of 85 recommendations necessary to provide significant safeguards against further wrongful convictions in Illinois. In 2003, the Legislature enacted Senate Bill 472, which addressed some 20 of the Commission’s recommendations.  Twelve other states also established commissions to study the causes of wrongful convictions, but only one state: North Carolina has established a special commission to investigate individual cases and free individuals found to be wrongly convicted:

Judges Free Inmate on Recommendation of Special Innocence Panel

“…90 percent of criminal cases, like Mr. Taylor’s, do not involve any DNA evidence…” The North Carolina Innocence Commission is presently now two for two, in the four cases it has considered, as it also found in April 2011, that In the case of State v. Kagonyera and Wilcoxson, the defendants were also innocent and subsequently freed.

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