The following column by Eric Zorn was published in the Chicago Tribune on February 3, 2012.
What prompted Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez to announce Thursday a "change in philosophy" and the formation of a special unit in her office to review claims of wrongful convictions?
The cynic wonders what took so long. Alvarez has been with the county prosecutor's office since 1986, during which time scores of old convictions have fallen apart, usually illustrating one or more of the many ways in which human error and human failings can pervert the administration of justice.
Witnesses lie, memories falter, experts blunder. Authorities connect phantom dots, jump to false conclusions and cling to decaying theories
Since Alvarez won the top job in 2008 more than a dozen such miscarriages have come to light, and her response has often been to obstruct and drag her feet, even though the mistakes identified were those of her predecessors.
The cynic notes that she's been under particular fire in the media lately for refusing to appoint a special prosecutor to re-examine the 2004 death of David Koschman of Mount Prospect. Koschman, 21, died from injuries he suffered in a drunken altercation with a group of men that included then Mayor Richard M. Daley's nephew, Richard J. “R.J.” Vanecko, then 29, and some suspect a cover up.
And the cynic observes that Alvarez is running for re-election this year, and voters will be impressed with such passages from her speech Thursday as
My job is not just about racking up convictions, it is about always seeking justice, even if that measure of justice means that we must acknowledge mistakes of the past.
The optimist says oh, come on. Alvarez has no serious opposition for re-election and, if anything, this more soft-nosed approach to prosecution signals political confidence that she can admit to past mistakes without seeming weak or losing the trust of her staff or the Democratic party.
The optimist says that this "change in philosophy" shows Alvarez growing in her job, acquiring the necessary humility to be a wise, not just a winning, prosecutor. And if this move just happens to burnish her credentials for higher office or a judgeship down the line, well, that seems fair.
The optimist knows that outsiders -- investigators, defense attorneys, agitators and journalists -- will still have to do the initial legwork to sound the alarm on behalf of those who make credible claims that they're victims of wrongful prosecutions. But the optimist believes that these outsiders in their search for truth will now find allies, not antagonists, in the state's attorney's office.
Is the cynic right? Or the optimist?
We'll know the answer if and when this new unit starts producing results -- taking initiative, finding new exculpatory evidence and reaching conclusions that embarrass others in the justice system.
"It's a step in the right direction," said David Protess, the former crusading Northwestern Univeristy journalism professor who now heads the Chicago Innocence Project and has clashed with Alvarez. "We should have a common interest in achieving justice in these cases."
But Protess and others who independently investigate allegations of wrongful convictions say the first test is whether Alvarez brings in an outsider to run the unit, or whether she simply staffs it with the old guard.
“We have absolutely no financial resources to create any new positions or hire any new employees from the outside in this area or any other given the budget cuts that have been imposed on this office,” said Alvarez’ spokeswoman Sally Daly when I asked her about this Friday. The six-person staff is “being assigned from within our office.”
So the jury remains out whether this is a change in philsophy for Alvarez or simply a change in public relations strategy.
See Jason Meisner's story Wrongful convictions spur State's Attorney Anita Alvarez to form review unit for controversial prosecution and, below, the full text of the press release based on Alvarez' remarks
STATE’S ATTORNEY ALVAREZ ANNOUNCES FORMATION OF FIRST-OF-ITS-KIND CONVICTION INTEGRITY UNIT IN THE COOK COUNTY STATE’S ATTORNEY’S OFFICE (Feb. 2, 2012)
The subject of wrongful conviction is challenging, but I feel strongly that it is an issue that we must deal with in an open and proactive manner. In my view, my job is not just about racking up convictions, it is about always seeking justice – even if that measure of justice means that we must acknowledge mistakes of the past.
One very important duty of my office is to handle and investigate post-conviction cases. Any time a defendant is convicted of a crime, they have a right to appeal that conviction, and in Illinois we have a statute that allows defendants the right to file post conviction petitions once they have exhausted all of their appellate rights in the state court system.
For many years the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office has had a dedicated post conviction unit and a DNA unit in which we have attorneys who review and investigate these post conviction cases, many of which are brought to us by innocence projects or defense attorneys when there is a claim of wrongful conviction.
Despite inferences to the contrary, we always take open minded looks at these cases. Obviously, we do not always end up agreeing with those who file these petitions. But we often work together with innocence projects to thoroughly investigate claims of wrongful convictions to make sure that those in prison are there correctly. When we have determined that a convicted person was convicted wrongfully, we have corrected the mistake. When we have acquired evidence that developed in cases that are still pending, where that evidence calls in to question the guilt of the accused, we have moved quickly to dismiss charges.
Many of the older cases involve requests for new or updated DNA testing. Some of these cases do not involve DNA evidence, but rather some other form or claim of new evidence. These are extremely challenging cases for the most part because the crimes occurred fifteen or twenty years ago or even longer -- when DNA testing was just introduced or still very much evolving and when police investigations in murder cases were conducted differently than they are today.
In 2005 the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office supported efforts in the state of Illinois to change our laws to mandate the recording of all homicide interrogations and confessions. This has been an extremely important reform that makes custodial questioning transparent. It also protects the rights of all of those involved, including the defendant as well as the police and the prosecutors conducting those interviews who may later be falsely accused of misconduct.
This important reform is working and it is working very well and when I became State’s Attorney I felt that we could do even more in this area. In 2009, we worked with the Chicago Police Department to expand the use of videotaping to include interviews with witnesses in murder cases. We started this as a pilot program but we have now expanded its availability to include all homicide cases that occur in the city of Chicago. This is also proving to be an exceptional advancement for the integrity of homicide cases because it helps to capture and preserve the final statements of our witnesses and enhance the strength of our cases as they move to trial.
But I still believe that there is more that we can do in this area and as a prosecutor I have a legal, ethical and moral obligation to do so. Today I am announcing the creation of a Conviction Integrity Unit within the State’s Attorney’s Office that will bring a new emphasis and a new focus on our review of cases involving questionable convictions. This unit will be staffed with three assistant state’s attorneys, two dedicated investigators and one victim witness specialist.
The creation of this new unit marks a shift in philosophy in which we intend to increase our focus and our openness about these cases. It will also allow us to formalize protocols and procedures and to be much more proactive in our review of these cases.
The unit will internally review post-conviction cases that are brought to our attention, and we will pay particular attention to the types of cases that have led to wrongful or questionable convictions such as cases involving single eyewitnesses. Or, cases involving confessions with little or no supporting evidence, particularly those involving juvenile defendants or defendants with mental health issues. We will also examine cases where physical evidence was not examined fully.
Moving forward, a function of the conviction integrity unit will also be to evaluate these cases and identify any problems or patterns so that we can use this information in lessons for future training for assistant state’s attorneys.
With the creation of this new unit I think that my office is demonstrating our commitment and our duty to bringing our very best efforts to ensure that only guilty people are convicted here in Cook County. And if we have any reason to believe that we have prosecuted or are prosecuting someone who is actually innocent, we will continue to take immediate steps to investigate the matter fully to see that justice is served. I remain committed to these values and I look forward to our work in this area in the future.