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EDITORIAL: How Illinois can help innocent people get out of prison

Ronald Watts, a former Chicago police sergeant, leaves the Dirksen Federal Building in 2013 after receiving a 22-month sentence after being found guilty for his role in an FBI sting. | Kevin Tanaka/For Sun-Times Media

Ronald Watts, a former Chicago police sergeant, leaves the Dirksen Federal Building in 2013 after receiving a 22-month sentence after being found guilty for his role in an FBI sting. | Kevin Tanaka/For Sun-Times Media

Illinois should take pride in the fact that it led the nation last year in exonerating people who were wrongly convicted of crimes.

That success story, though, largely was limited to Cook County.

That’s why we support the idea of Illinois creating a statewide unit — run out of the Illinois attorney general’s office — that would make sure that people who are convicted of crimes are, in fact, guilty.

There are lots of reasons a case might go off the rails, recent history has shown, sending an innocent person to prison. Eyewitnesses might be mistaken, people might make false confessions, authorities might engage in official misconduct, or judges or juries might make mistakes when rendering a verdict.

But when there has been a wrongful conviction, leaving an innocent person languishing behind bars, we cannot allow it to stand. That should be the first principle of a morally upright criminal justice system.

Forty-nine of the nation’s 151 exonerations last year were in Illinois, according to an annual report Tuesday by the National Registry of Exonerations, a joint project of the University of Michigan, Michigan State University and the University of California Irvine. Many of Illinois’ cases involved former Chicago police Sgt. Ronald Watts and his tactical team, who have been accused of fabricating drug cases against people at the Ida B. Wells housing projects.

But legal experts say so few resources are devoted to re-investigating cases that many more innocent people remain behind bars.

The Cook County state’s attorney’s office runs a Conviction Integrity Unit, revamped by State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, that has successfully dug up examples of wrongful convictions. But that unit doesn’t cover the other 101 counties in the state, many of which can’t afford to create a similar unit.

Bill Clutter, who co-founded the Illinois Innocence Project in 2001 and now runs a national organization called Investigating Innocence, recently called on the state to create its own conviction integrity unit to ensure that all defendants in Illinois are getting a fair shake.

Conviction integrity units, which are popping up in prosecutors’ offices around the country, investigate to see if new or overlooked evidence supports claims from people who say they are innocent. Nationwide, there were 44 such units 2018, almost three times as many as just five years earlier, according to the National Registry of Exonerations.

“There have been some spotty, intermittent steps across the country where prosecutors have instituted some form of conviction review,” said John Hanlon, executive director and legal director of the Illinois Innocence Project. “For Illinois to, in essence, take the lead to require state review . . . I think is a wonderful idea.”

Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul said he has been weighing the idea of a statewide conviction integrity unit, but said it would have to be constructed carefully with support from prosecutors around the state. Also, it would require sufficient funding from the Legislature to adequately staff it with investigators and lawyers.

Independent organizations such as the Innocence Project and the Center on Wrongful Convictions, both of which have helped free innocent people from prison, can handle only a limited number of cases, mostly those involving severe sentences. And the normal court appeals process clearly has failed to catch hundreds of wrongful convictions.

A statewide conviction integrity unit “makes tons of sense,” said Craig B. Futterman, a clinical law professor at the University of Chicago Law School. “There is a dire need for putting resources into investigating a host of convictions.”

A bill now in the Legislature would require each county to create its own conviction integrity unit. But that might be a burden for smaller counties that have only a handful of prosecutors, and in small offices such a unit would be less likely to be independent. A statewide unit could be much more effective.

Amid the crush of other legislation, it’s probably too late to get a bill for a statewide conviction integrity unit through the Legislature this spring. But work can begin now on figuring out the best way to have the state take a second look at cases that are crying out for independent re-examination.

Illinois residents need to trust that the criminal justice system is working. A statewide conviction integrity unit would help to ensure that.

 

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