By Laura Caldwell
The room looked like a typical busy suburban courtroom. But the people in the jury box were media, and they, along with the spectators in the gallery, were waiting to see something that was anything but typical—a state’s attorney’s office willing to admit a mistake and free an innocent man, Angel Gonzalez, who’d served 20 years for it.
Lake County, Illinois is not the place where you might expect this kind of admission to happen. Only a few years before, the New York Times had written an extensive article detailing the alarming rate of wrongful convictions in Lake County and the prosecutor’s tendency to not only ignore DNA but create wildly fanciful explanations around it. [i] And yet despite other similar media and a maelstrom of allegations from innocence organizations around the country, the state’s attorney’s office and others in Lake County continued to fight such cases instead of admitting wrongdoing. This stance of digging in their heels and refusing to admit their own guilt led to financial harm for the county in the payout of large settlements for egregious behavior. It also further psychologically injured those wrongfully convicted as well as the original victims of the crimes.
Angel Gonzalez was arrested following a rape in 1994 when he visited someone at the apartment building where the rape occurred. His car apparently matched the description of a vehicle used in the crime. Gonzalez was led out of police car at 1:30 in the morning, handcuffed and told to stand front of the headlights of another police vehicle, in which the victim was seated. The victim identified him, which frequently happens in these suggestive ‘show ups’ that take the place of a line up. After, Gonzalez was beaten by the police until he agreed to a false confession scripted by them. Gonzalez always maintained his innocence, and DNA would show conclusively two decades later that he had not committed the crime.
The new state’s attorney in Lake County, Mike Nerheim, was contacted by Gonzalez’s attorneys (from the Innocence Project and Illinois Innocence Project) about the DNA. He worked with them to learn the results. Knowledgeable of past mistakes and apparently understanding of the harm brought by the previous office’s reticence to admit culpability, Gonzalez’s conviction was vacated in the courtroom that day. But the judge didn’t acknowledge Mr. Gonzalez except to admonish him when his attorney embraced him. None of his many family or friends was allowed to address or touch him. Most chilling, Mr. Gonzalez was led away in shackles due to an immigration issue caused by the 20 years behind bars (he’d been granted a green card before his wrongful conviction, but it expired while he was in prison).
The chains connecting his ankles and the metal of the shackles clanged as Mr. Gonzalez, an innocent man, was led from the courtroom by armed guards. In the gallery were two other innocent men–Juan Rivera and Bennie Starks, both of whom had suffered through Lake County’s refusal to recognize DNA that cleared them of the crimes. The sound of the shackles and the sight of Rivera and Starks watching Gonzalez escorted out was a reminder that innocence (in particular in certain areas of the country) has made many strides, but there are many more to go.
Still, the cooperation by State’s Attorney Nerheim and his office is immensely optimistic, possibly leading the way for an evolved handling by other district attorneys. Once outside the courtroom, a reporter shouted at Nerheim, “I’ve been here for a lot of exonerations, and I’ve never heard an apology.” Nerheim nodded, then responded, “If words were enough I’d say I’m sorry. And I am sorry.”[ii]
Barry Scheck, one of Angel Gonzalez’s lawyers, later noted the effort. “Since taking office, State’s Attorney Mike Nerheim has shown a real commitment to justice in Lake County,” said Scheck, Co-Director of the Innocence Project. “His office readily consented to the DNA testing and moved quickly to reverse the conviction as soon as the testing proved Mr. Gonzalez’ innocence. This is a much welcome change from his predecessor who stubbornly fought for years to deny justice for several wrongly convicted people in Lake County. ”
Wrongful convictions are, in some ways, an unfixable problem because our criminal justice system is a human one, rather than a machine. Errors will always occur, sometimes without ill will, sometimes leading to great harm to the innocent, but the acknowledgment of errors is an important piece of the puzzle. An expression of sympathy or empathy does not have to be an admission of guilt and can provide great solace for the community and the wrongfully accused.
[i] Martin, Andrew. “The Prosecutions Case Against DNA”, New York Times Magazine, November 25, 2011.
[ii]Hinkel, Dan. “After 20 Years in Prison, Lake County Clears Man–But He Isn’t Free,” Chicago Tribune, March 9, 2015.