The Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern Law School (CWC) took a bold step in highlighting efforts to prevent legal injustices with yesterday’s Conviction Integrity Conference. The CWC assembled a wildly diverse group to discuss wrongful convictions and conviction integrity review units in prosecutor’s offices. The Conference consisted of three panels made up of exonerees, crime victims, and State and District attorneys. As a whole, panelists discussed the need for conviction integrity review, the ways in which such review units have been established, and the common causes of wrongful convictions.
CWC co-director Karen Daniel and Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez began the conference with opening remarks. Ms. Alvarez spoke of the need for conviction integrity review and gave a brief overview of the unit she created in 2012, which currently contains 180 cases in pending stages of review and has vacated 9 convictions since its inception.The first panel of the day discussed the need for conviction integrity review. Panelists included Alan Beaman, an exoneree who spent over 13 years in prison; Keith Findley, the Co-Director of the Wisconsin Innocence Project; Thomas Breen, former Assistant State’s Attorney; and Hon. Judge Paul Biebel, Presiding Judge of the Circuit Court of Cook County, Criminal Division. Each individual discussed his personal experience with wrongful convictions from a different perspective.
The second panel consisted of State and District Attorneys from across the country. The prosecutors described the reasons why they decided to start conviction integrity review units, and outlined the structures of each particular unit. Lake County State’s Attorney Mike Nerheim explained that since his office is relatively small, he enlisted outside volunteers to staff the unit. Lake County’s conviction integrity unit is entirely independent from the State’s Attorney office and consists of individuals in various legal fields. Brooklyn DA Kenneth Thompson turned to Ronald Sullivan, a former Public Defender and current Harvard Law School professor, to help create his review unit, which is a hybrid of Brooklyn district attorneys and outside lawyers and investigators.
Conversely, Cook County’s conviction integrity review is housed entirely within the State’s Attorney office, which provides no opportunity for independent review. Ms. Alvarez described the work of the unit as a “triage”. She stated that the attorneys and investigators in the Cook County unit pare down the vast number of letters they receive to then reexamine cases and focus on those that they believe contain the most credible claims.
The third and final panel centered on common causes of a wrongful conviction. Panelists spoke about eyewitness misidentification, false or coerced confessions, and junk science. Penny Beerntsen, the victim of a violent rape, spoke about identifying the wrong man as her assailant and the suggestive police and prosecutorial techniques that contributed to that misidentification. Former DC homicide detective Jim Trainum described how and why police obtain false or coerced confessions, while former ATF fire investigator John Malooly demonstrated through his presentation how similar arson and accidental fires can look to an investigator. He explained how it is unduly difficult to differentiate between arson and accidental fires, and how this ambiguity raises doubt on the many cases where a fire investigator’s determination of arson was a main reason for a conviction. Lastly, Deborah Tuerkheimer spoke about the change in scientific opinion regarding shaken baby syndrome, or abusive head trauma. She addressed the fact that science changes, but that convictions based on science are permanent, and stressed that this is precisely the reason our justice system demands conviction integrity review units.
Despite its overall balanced and democratic presentation of multiple perspectives, the Conference was not immune from criticism. The tone of the event was at times self-congratulatory from the prosecutorial side. The prosecutors in attendance seemed inclined to blame their predecessors and distance themselves from any wrongdoing by their offices. Additionally, there was no opportunity for audience questions, which stifled meaningful – and admittedly heated – discussion.