Wrongful Conviction

A wrongful conviction can forever alter the life of the person arrested and imprisoned. Unfortunately, Cook County has the dubious honor of leading the country in this category. The National Registry of Exonerations based at the University of Michigan worked with the Center for Wrongful Convictions (CWC), part of Northwestern University in Chicago, to track the numbers of wrongful convictions. Many cases included arrests by the Chicago Police Department (CPD). The mishandling by the CPD possibly includes false confessions, witness tampering, unreliable informants, false evidence, lawyering errors, incompetence, or poorly conducted investigations. No police officers have been disciplined in any of these cases that cost the victims hundreds of years in custody. The outcome is several settlements totaling in the range of approximately $140 million.

The CWC has cleared the names of 36 people since its founding in 1998. Prior to that, 14 other people were also exonerated of their offenses. The first person in the world to be cleared of a crime through DNA evidence was Gary Dotson. In that case, the victim made up a story that the defendant raped her. After Dotson’s conviction, she eventually admitted her falsehood although it took many years for Dotson’s name to be cleared.

In a 2012 case in Cook County, prosecutors used DNA evidence to convict the defendant. However, this type of DNA was found in one in four African-American males, inconclusive information with which to convict a person. Potential matches in the Chicago area alone could have exceeded hundreds of thousands of men. The man’s name was cleared, and he was released only after he spent a year in custody.

Later explanation of the DNA in the case revealed that the defendant could also have been excluded from the evidence. However, when the jury heard the phrase “DNA match,” they jumped to conclusions about his guilt that were not accurate. Incomplete genetic codes can result in common DNA matches. However, when prosecutors present limited information, a wrong conviction can occur.

In a 1987 case in Chicago, a man who was convicted of rape based on eyewitness accounts spent more than three years in prison. He settled a lawsuit for $5 million after his wrongful conviction was overturned because of DNA evidence. After his exoneration in 2007, he was granted a pardon in 2008. However, because of his conviction as a sex offender, he could not find work or pursue meaningful personal relationships, which led to the settlement.

The state of Illinois stopped the death penalty in 2000 because of the danger of an innocent person being executed. The state government established a 15-member commission and made recommendations to prevent wrongful convictions in the state. Senate Bill 472, enacted in 2003, implemented about 20 of the suggestions.