Not so many years ago, the general public believed that pretty much anyone who went to prison was guilty. If you wanted to find a truly innocent man behind bars, the thinking went, you had to watch TV or a movie.
The ugly truth, however, was that many innocent people were quietly shipped off to prison over the years, some of them for the better part of their lives.
Their unsettling stories have come out from time to time as they are freed, the cases against them torpedoed by new DNA tests or other evidence.
Those sad tales have made us increasingly aware of the imperfections of the criminal justice system, an awareness that went mainstream in 2003 when Gov. George Ryan commuted the death sentences of all 163 men and four women on Death Row in Illinois to life in prison. He said he could not be certain they all were guilty.
Two new developments this week represent further progress in the change that has been rippling through the system for two decades:
In what she called a “shift in philosophy,” Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez announced she has created a six-person unit to investigate wrongful conviction claims; and the Illinois Supreme Court, in the case of Stanley Wrice, ruled that extracting confessions via torture can never be dismissed as “harmless error.”
Both were remarkable signs of how far we have come.
In recent years, good work by journalists, lawyers, innocence projects and even university students has helped to highlight courtroom pitfalls. We’ve learned that confessions can be false, witnesses can be mistaken and evidence can be misleading. A good dozen or so well-known cases from the days before Alvarez’s election have fallen apart since she took office. Two high-profile Lake County cases similarly collapsed in the past year and a half. It’s been an education for all of us.
An independent unit in Alvarez’s office could go far to ensure justice by reviewing questionable convictions and carefully examining cases where the evidence is thin. Wrongful prosecutions could be nipped in the bud.
The key word is “independent.” In bureaucracies, there’s a tendency to put the organization’s needs first. Think of internal investigation units that become little more than public relations arms of police departments.
Alvarez’s challenge, one she is of course well of aware of, is to make sure the new unit maintains its independence over time and doesn’t let up on the often unpopular work of being an in-house critic.
No one wants to see bad people go free and unpunished. But the more we can ensure that prosecutions are fair, the more we will inspire confidence in the integrity of the system.