The following opinion by Peter Neufeld, co-director of The Innocence Project, was published by the Chicago Tribune on December 21, 2012.
Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez claimed that "60 Minutes" misrepresented her in an episode about the wrongful convictions of nine juveniles who falsely confessed. It's important to remember the two cases involving these teenagers that motivated "60 Minutes" to report on the miscarriages of justice in Cook County.
A year after the 1991 rape and murder of a 14-year-old girl from Dixmoor, police, lacking any physical evidence or eyewitness accounts, aggressively interrogated five teenagers until three confessed. Two later pleaded guilty when told that their sentences would be decades shorter if they cooperated. Not surprisingly, in nearly 10 percent of the nation's 301 DNA exonerations, innocent men pleaded guilty to crimes they did not commit to reduce their sentences. According to the confessions, all five teenage boys had unprotected intercourse with the girl, yet astonishingly, none of their DNA was found in her. Instead, the semen recovered from the victim matched a 35-year-old convicted sex offender who had recently been paroled into her community and had no known relationship with her. Prosecutors have not charged the man.
In 1994, a prostitute was raped and strangled in Englewood. The investigation had grown cold until police picked up a boy who may have been selling marijuana. Police interrogated him for two days before he supposedly implicated four teenagers, who were convicted after each falsely confessed to the crime. Again, there were no eyewitnesses and no physical evidence connecting them to the deceased. According to the four confessions, each of the boys had unprotected intercourse with the victim, yet just as in Dixmoor, none of their DNA was present. Instead the DNA profile of the semen matched Johnny Douglas.
On "60 Minutes," Alvarez acknowledges that Douglas, now deceased, was a "bad guy" but claims his background doesn't prove he committed the Englewood crime. Douglas had been convicted of murdering another prostitute by strangulation and assaulting others by attempted strangulation. Indeed, Douglas was tried in a second prostitute murder case in which prosecutors introduced evidence that he was nicknamed "Maniac" and had a modus operandi of strangling prostitutes. A police report from the murder places Douglas at the crime scene and, when interviewed by police, claimed falsely that he "knew nothing." His semen was inside her, yet he claimed to know nothing?
After the "60 Minutes" piece aired, Alvarez criticized the TV news magazine for its portrayal of her in a public letter and in an op-ed in this paper. Incredibly, she never acknowledged in either communication that the young men were innocent and never apologized for the catastrophic loss that they endured of the best years of their lives. Instead, she vehemently fought to maintain the convictions — in Dixmoor waiting eight months to agree to a dismissal, and in Englewood opposing the court vacating the convictions to the bitter end; even after she lost, she persisted in opposing the young men's efforts to secure certificates of innocence. They had to spend needless extra months confined for crimes they didn't commit.
Through her actions, it has become abundantly clear that Alvarez lacks insight into the causes of wrongful conviction, which, incidentally, doesn't bode well for her newly formed conviction integrity unit. In almost 30 percent of the DNA exonerations, false confessions were the primary cause. Juveniles are particularly vulnerable. While the public may have a hard time believing someone could falsely confess, law enforcement has long known that it happens frequently and is trained to look for other evidence to corroborate a confession.
The public should be equally concerned with Alvarez's inability to admit that mistakes were made and that misconduct cannot be ruled out.
The first step to remediating mistakes and misconduct is to admit errors were made. The admission of error is fundamental whether a shuttle crashes, a hospital mishandles a patient in the operating room or an innocent man languishes in prison for a crime he did not commit. If you can't admit error, there is no hope for meaningful improvement or change. The most serious aspect of the way in which Alvarez handled these cases is her utter unwillingness to admit that the convictions of nine teenage boys were tragic failures of the criminal justice system.
Peter Neufeld is co-director of the Innocence Project, which uses DNA evidence to exonerate people who have been wrongly convicted and advocates for reforms to prevent further injustices. The project represented two of the young men in the discussed cases above.