By Jamison Howard
Since 1989, there have been 158 individuals exonerated in Illinois. Out of 158 individuals exonerated, 111 of those individuals were convicted in Cook County. Id. From 1972 to 1991, Chicago police tortured men and women at police headquarters, coercing confessions from most them. Due to these events, Chicago was dubbed the “false confession capital” by a CBS “60 Minutes” report in 2012. With this reputation, a reputation that is by no means stretched or propped up, the Cook County Conviction Integrity Unit must first insure it has integrity itself.
In 2012, because of Cook County’s high wrongful conviction rate, Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez announced the creation of a “Conviction Integrity Unit.” While many have applauded the creation of this unit and believe it provides a modicum of heat to warm the “chilly relations” between those heavily involved in innocence programs in Cook County and the State’s Attorney’s office, I cannot join the applause.
While an innocence professional in Chicago indicates that the member of the unit devoted to DNA has been ‘very receptive,’ there is no way around the fact that the six-person unit is comprised solely of individuals from the State’s Attorney’s Office. This presents major issues with regards to bias and conflicts of interest. Additionally, the four prosecutors assigned to the unit must also continue to prosecute criminal cases. Although, it is not impossible to do both jobs, this divided focus raises questions regarding efficiency, thoroughness, and whether the State’s Attorney’s office is truly dedicated to changing its image and seeking justice for those wrongfully convicted.
The idea of independent, government-funded conviction review is not novel and, in fact, not even an hour away. Lake County’s State’s Attorney Mike Nerheim has created such a committee. Two retired judges, three attorneys who practice in the private sector, and a criminal justice instructor compose Lake County’s independent review committee. Lake County State’s Attorney Nerheim, in an interview for the Chicago Tribune, commented that, “The problem with those (internal conviction review units) is that you have prosecutors who socialize with each other and have worked with each other reviewing each other’s cases…[t]hat makes it difficult to overcome the cognitive bias and tunnel vision that combine to create the problems in the first place.”
In order to reach its maximum potential, I believe the Cook County Conviction Integrity Unit must expand beyond the State’s Attorney’s Office. To offset bias and ensure strict integrity, legal professionals who have no affiliations with the State’s Attorney office could be sworn in to help with the review of cases. Additionally, the unit should consider partnerships with innocence clinics such as the Illinois Innocence Project and Northwestern University School of Law’s Center on Wrongful Convictions, as these clinics have been at the forefront of raising awareness about wrongful convictions and contributing to many of Illinois’ exonerations.
Cook County’s State’s Attorney’s Office cannot afford to simply be sincere about a desire to change perceptions and avoid wrongful convictions. Specific, precise steps are needed to ensure the integrity and thoroughness of the conviction review process. Lives depend on these steps. And until these steps are taken, I’ll be here saying, “Hold the applause.”