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Editorial: Even in toughest cases, law officers can't fudge the facts

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This week’s virtually unheard-of decision to fire a Cook County prosecutor for allegedly lying under oath has shined a light on the perils of fudging evidence to secure convictions. All police, prosecutors and judges should be reviewing their practices to ensure this doesn’t happen in the future.

And nobody should be so naive as to believe this is a completely shocking exception to the rule.

On Monday, Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez fired a veteran prosecutor, Joseph Lattanzio, for testifying under oath that a statement introduced in court was the only version that existed. A surreptitious recording by the woman who made the made statement directly contradicted Lattanzio’s claim.

It hasn’t been legally established whether Lattanzio lied under oath or just forgot 3½-year-old facts, as his lawyer contends. But many people in the legal community will tell you that police and prosecutors too often try to make cases stronger by massaging evidence to omit or misrepresent inconvenient details. Breaking the rules in that fashion risks convicting innocent people or, if it causes a case to unravel, putting violent criminals back on the street.

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Illinois’ litany of cases in which law officers fudged evidence is far too long. A small sampling would include:

  • After the 2004 David Koschman homicide, a special prosecutor’s report concluded police fabricated evidence and created a false official record.
  • In the Ford Heights Four case involving the 1978 murders of Lawrence Lionberg and Carol Schmal, a crucial police report was kept secret and the Illinois Supreme Court unanimously found prosecutors had allowed a key witness to lie on the stand.
  • In the cases against Rolando Cruz and Alejandro Hernandez for the 1983 murder of Jeanine Nicarico, a police detective’s report was disproved by a recording on a store security camera and a State Police expert’s testimony was contradicted by his own notes, which surfaced later. Later DNA tests also cast doubt on a “vision statement” police said they heard Cruz make.

The case that led to Lattanzio’s firing dates to 2012, when police officer Del Pearson was shot in the chest after responding to a call on the 8400 block of South Kingston Avenue. Police found a .38-caliber blue-steel revolver linked to the shooting in a South Side home where suspect Paris Sadler lived with his mother.

At issue now is whether the search that turned up the incriminating evidence was legal. Sadler’s mother says she did not give police — who didn’t yet have a search warrant — permission to enter the house and that she wanted to speak with a lawyer. The written statement Lattanzio testified about in court does not mention that, but the recorded version does. Nor did the statement entered in court contain corrections and edits Sadler’s mother said were in the original.

If Judge Thaddeus Wilson rules the search was illegal and evidence about the gun can’t be used in court, it would be a major setback for the case, although Alvarez says enough evidence remains to proceed. Whatever happens, we can only hope justice prevails in the end.

Securing convictions in a legal system full of restrictions and traps for the unwary is difficult, which is why some in law enforcement feel compelled to go beyond the evidence to make cases stronger. They’re convinced they have the right suspect, and they don’t want a judge or jury to have doubts. They don’t want a guilty person to walk free.

But that’s not how the rules work. And if anyone should understand that, it’s people who work in law enforcement.

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