Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Can Bad Evidence Ever Be Good Law?

by Michael G. Brock MA, LLP, LMSW

In an article that ran in the Detroit Free Press on February 8, 2012, and again online under the title: Judges to decide: Can religious confessions be used against you?, David Ashenfelter discusses the case of People v. Bragg. Mr. Bragg is charged with the rape or molestation of a 9 year old girl when he was 15. The girl revealed the molestation to her mother 2 years later after a church function, and her mother told their Baptist pastor, Rev. John Vaprezsan.

Vapreszan then decided to mix pastoral counseling and criminal investigation in much the same way that I have seen people in my line of work mix psychotherapy and forensic investigation, but truly in a way that is more sinister. When therapists mix therapy and forensic investigation, they usually don’t bother to confront the accused. As a rule, they ask direct and leading questions of the presenting parent and the child who has allegedly been abused.

In this case, Vaprezsan apparently decided to deliberately abuse the trust that his congregants place in him by interrogating Mr. Bragg under the guise of religious counseling. After extracting a confession (according to his testimony, but a fact in dispute by Bragg and his mother, who was at the interview), he contacted the police and gave them a statement, then testified at pretrial against Mr. Bragg.

To her credit, Judge Cynthia Gray Hathaway disallowed his testimony, but Prosecutor Teri Odette, appealed the decision, apparently hoping that in this climate in which all close calls go to the prosecution and anyone can be a self-appointed investigator, the appeals court will simply ignore the law.

No minister of the gospel, or priest of any denomination whatsoever, or duly accredited Christian Science practitioner, shall be allowed to disclose any confessions made to him in his professional character, in the course of discipline enjoined by the rules or practice of such denomination."

Michigan Compiled Law 600.2156

Any communications between attorneys and their clients, between members of the clergy and members of their respective churches, and between physicians and their patients are hereby declared to be privileged and confidential when those communications were necessary to enable the attorneys, members of the clergy, or physicians to serve as such attorney, member of the clergy or physician.

Michigan compiled law 767.5a

The prosecution has made the argument that the clergyman did not claim privilege, but the law does not say that the privilege pertains only to clergy, but to the confessor as well. The clergyman is not “allowed” to disclose any confession or communication obtained by him in his professional capacity even if he wants to. Had Rev. Vaprezsan informed Mr. Bragg that he was wearing his police investigator hat on this particular occasion, it seems unlikely that Mr. Bragg and his mother would have accepted the invitation of the pastor to pay him a visit and discuss this matter.

He was counting on the special trust that the members of his congregation have in him to obtain information he apparently thought the police would have a more difficult time obtaining. He is probably right; if all clergy were to deputize themselves as law enforcement officers they could routinely pick up the telephone after a conference and provide evidence for one member of their congregation against another. Perhaps they could even be paid in this capacity—or perhaps not.

This alleged man of the cloth is a disgusting affront to all clergy and a menace to his congregation. But if the allegation is true, doesn’t he have an obligation to see that justice is done? Perhaps, but within the parameters of appropriate behavior for a clergyman. If Rev. Vaprezsan had suggested to the child and her mother that they contact the police and Protective Services and file a report it is very likely that a successful prosecution would have been undertaken; one that was both legal and ethical and resulted in a conviction. Instead, we have a case in which a minister is violating a sacred confidence and one of his most important obligations as a member of the clergy, and a prosecutor is asking the appeals court to toss the law because her cause is just.

How did we get to the place where convicting someone with bad evidence replaced getting someone off on a technicality? And which attitude is ultimately more dangerous? Do we really need an imprisonment rate that is ten times higher than any other civilized country in the world? What happened to the axiom that it is better for the guilty to go free than the innocent to be convicted? What happened to the presumption of innocence? And what about Louis Brandeis’ admonition that, “Experience teaches us to be most on our guard to protect liberty when the government's purposes are beneficent.”

Why is it okay to bait a person under arrest into making statements after that person has said they want legal representation? Where do these policies lead? They constitute a serious and ongoing erosion of due process guarantees and lead to a police state mentality. And don’t tell me I don’t have a right to an opinion on the matter, I live in this country.

It is important to recognize that the average citizen has fewer resources than any government, and that government ought not to exploit it citizens because of this discrepancy. This it would seem is the true definition of conservative, if by that we mean the intentions of our founding fathers. A primary concern was that the citizens of our new country should be free from bullying by their government. This notion is clearly out of favor now, however. Take for instance the case of Dr. Labeed Nouri.

According to L.L. Brasier (Detroit Free Press, August 29, 2011) Dr. Nouri was convicted of sexually assaulting a young woman he employed as a favor to a friend. He did 3.5 years in prison, where he was repeatedly attacked by other prisoners, before the woman’s boyfriend came forward to say that it was all lies and he wore a wire to prove it. But what did the most noble prosecutor Jessica Cooper do when she received incontrovertible evidence of the perjury?

Prosecutors, noting Nouri had been convicted, offered a deal: If he pleaded no contest to a low-level misdemeanor assault - with no probation-reporting requirements and no restrictions on obtaining his medical license - he could be free within hours and get it expunged after five years.

Once they found out that Dr. Nouri had been wrongly convicted of a crime, the state should have been falling all over itself to release him and restore him to his rightful place in society. Instead, they let him out of prison, but added insult to injury by requiring him to plead to a crime they know he didn’t commit.

Why? One can think of many reasons, none of them honorable. The prosecution could have been protecting itself against lawsuit or possible criminal charges for maliciously prosecuting a case that had no physical evidence (because the prosecution’s witness refused to provide it), and, in which the facts clearly indicated the accuser was lying, even before the case went to a jury. How did the prosecution know that? Because at the precise time the accuser stated she was being abused—and she was very specific about the time—Dr. Nouri was continuously dictating medical records and there was a documented, accurate record of the fact.

Dr. Nouri’s attorneys should have understood the psychological temper of the times well enough to put him on the stand in his own defense. Regardless of what instructions a judge gives a jury, most people are psychologically predisposed to believe that someone who won’t speak in his own defense is guilty as charged. And especially in sexual abuse cases the presumption is going to be with the prosecution.

I had a case in Dumas, Texas a few years ago where defense counsel thought they had won the case without putting on their own witnesses. They confronted the accuser on cross examination with the documented fact that she had made a false allegation against someone else a year earlier and she had lied about it again on the stand during this trial. But the jury was unmoved. After the defendant was convicted, the prosecutor said to me, “Down here we have a saying, if you don’t talk, you don’t walk.”

That mistake notwithstanding, the fact that these cases are so easy to win should not be a reason for ambitious prosecutors to feather their nests by sending people they should know are innocent to prison. Covering their behind or protecting people who commit malicious perjury should not be a reason for hanging yet another crime on the true victim.

Michael G. Brock MA, LLP, LMSW is licensed as both a master’s level psychologist and social worker. He is in private practice at Counseling and Evaluation Services, 2514 Biddle, Wyandotte MI 48192. Mr. Brock has been in the therapy field since 1974 and, in the past several years, custody evaluations have become the majority of his practice. Mr. Brock has done hundreds of evaluations. His website is at

Monday, February 20, 2012

The West Memphis Three: An A-Z List of Justice Gone Wrong

The following opinion by Meghan Lalonde was originally posted at Law As She Is Spoke, an online project of Program in Law and Journalism at New York Law School, on February 16, 2012.

West Memphis, 1993: Three 8-year-old boys brutally murdered in small-town Arkansas. Three satanic teenage “punks” to blame it on. When looking for suspects, these teenagers fit the bill – long hair, heavy metal fans, all dressed in black. There was even a confession. The story caught the attention of two HBO filmmakers, who decided to make a documentary about the horrible crime that traumatized the community.

The film that introduced the world to defendants Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley – the West Memphis Three (WM3) – wasn’t supposed to be about wrongful convictions. It wasn’t supposed to be a project that led to two additional films over the next 18 years. It just turned out that way.

Last month, HBO premiered the third and final chapter of the documentary, “Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory.” I’d heard about it and thought it seemed interesting so on a rainy Friday afternoon I turned on the TV to give the first one a shot. Six hours, two sandwiches, and a full liter of Diet Coke later, I was reeling.

Searching for order in all the disorder, I’ve boiled it down to an A to Z list of some of the haunting and perplexing aspects about this terrible miscarriage of justice. There will be no “Spoiler Alert” here. Google the film and you’ll see that the three convicted murderers are free, released in August 2011 after entering into Alford Pleas (see “P” below). As with so many epic stories, knowing the ending doesn’t minimize the gripping nature of the journey.

Alternative suspects. One of the many critical shortcomings of the West Memphis Police Department was failing to search for leads on additional suspects. First, police never investigated Terry Hobbs, the stepfather of one victim with a history of violence. Mr. Hobbs claimed he hadn’t seen the children the day they went missing, but his neighbors are certain they saw him with the kids after school, around the time they were last seen. In 1993, these neighbors were never questioned. Police also botched the investigation of an unidentified black man who was seen at a local restaurant covered in mud and blood on the evening of the murders. They collected blood samples from inside the restaurant, then lost the evidence.

Blood. When the bodies of the three boys were discovered in a stream they were found naked, hogtied, stabbed, and mutilated. The prosecution argued that the murders occurred near where the bodies were found, but if that were true, wouldn’t there have been blood found at the scene? There wasn’t. Not even a drop. The use of a knife and ritual bloodletting thought to be part of satanic rituals were integral to the prosecution’s theory against the WM3 and yet there wasn’t any blood to be found. Recent forensic analysis has explained that the scratches and skin flaying of the victims were actually due to animal predation.

Celebrity support. Celebrities figured among thousands of supporters who learned about the WM3 from the first film. In 2010, Johnny Depp and Eddie Vedder hosted a benefit concert in their support. When the WM3 were released in August, Damien Echols, the defendant who had spent 18 years on death row, said he wanted to go to Disneyland. Mr. Depp made it happen.

Death row. “Welcome to where time stands still/No one leaves and no one will” are the lyrics to one of Damien Echols’s favorite Metallica songs, “Sanitarium.” It’s a fitting description for solitary confinement at Varner Super Maximum Security Unit in the Arkansas Department of Correction. “You have to create your own world in there or else you’ll go insane from that stuff,” he said in an interview with Piers Morgan after his release. See “S” for more on sentencing.

Eleven. Perhaps the most chilling quote from the entire case came from Chief Investigator Gary Gitchell. At a press conference in the early stages of prosecution, Mr. Gitchell was asked how strong he thought the case was on a scale of 1-10. His answer: “Eleven.” Mr. Gitchell has not spoken publicly about the release of the WM3.

Freaks. In a town filled with bible thumpin’ Christians, you might be able to guess how well three longhaired heavy metal-loving teenagers fit in. They didn’t. “Just look at the freaks,” said Pamela Hobbs, the mother of one victim. “They look like punks.” Damien Echols had even dabbled in Wicca, a religion historically tied to witchcraft, easily making him the strangest and most targeted member of the bunch. At the time, he said, “What people don’t understand they try to destroy or ridicule, try to make it look bad or wrong. West Memphis is a second Salem right now.” He was only 19 at the time but he was right.

Guilty. The WM3 were all found guilty of murder. Given the lack of evidence to tie them to the crimes, these guilty verdicts are both astonishing and frightening.

HBO. Every now and then a documentary can have a direct impact on its subjects (see “The Thin Blue Line”). The WM3 will tell you that if not for the first “Paradise Lost” film they would not be free today.

IQ. One of the WM3, Jessie Misskelley, had an IQ score between 72-73 and functioned at the level of a third grader. When questioned by the police about his friends, he stated he committed the crimes along with them. According to experts on coerced confessions, Jessie is the type of person who is likely to give a false confession — easily confused and wanting to please his interrogators. See “Q” for more.

Justice. As of now, there is no justice for the WM3 because they remain convicted murderers in the eyes of the law, “They sent us to prison for the rest of our lives,” said Jason Baldwin after he was released, “Then we had to come here and the state says ‘we’ll let you go only if you admit guilt.’ That’s not justice no matter how you look at it.” (See “P” to learn more).

Knives. A knife was (conveniently) found in a lake behind Jason Baldwin’s house (months after the WM3 were arrested), and played a critical role for the prosecution, which suggested the knife was used to mutilate the young victims. A second knife was given to HBO filmmakers by John Mark Byers, the stepfather of one victim, just days before his home was searched. This knife was turned over to police after a producer at HBO noticed there was blood on it. Much of the first two films dealt with the suppositions on both sides that one or the other of these knives was the murder weapon. As noted earlier (see “B”) today it seems knives were not involved in the murders.

Love. It’s probably the last thing you’d associate with death row, but here we are. Three years into his prison stay, Damien Echols started receiving letters from a woman in Brooklyn who’d seen “Paradise Lost.” They began exchanging letters and just over a year later, Lorri Davis, the architect turned activist, visited him in prison and moved to Little Rock. In 1999 they were married in the prison visiting room. Ms. Davis has worked tirelessly for his release.

Media coverage. From the moment news broke of the murders the story made national headlines. But back in 1993, the media’s coverage of the arrests painted the WM3 as satanic killers. They were fighting an uphill battle, one that in hindsight, they had no chance of winning.

Natalie Maines. The lead singer of the Dixie Chicks was an active supporter of the WM3 during their time in prison. In fact, she was so vocal that one victim’s stepfather, Terry Hobbs, sued her for defamation after she made remarks suggesting he was involved with the murders. It was in defending her for defamation that her attorneys interviewed Mr. Hobbs and gleaned facts that further incriminated him. Today, he is seen as the most likely murderer, but he has not been arrested. In any case, his suit against Ms. Maines was dismissed.

Occult expert. Prosecutors for the state used the “expert” testimony of Dr. Dale Griffis to show the WM3 were conducting a satanic ritual. The retired police officer who started a second career as an occult expert stumbled on cross-examination when he admitted that he hadn’t taken a single class to receive his PhD from Columbia Pacific University. The university was sued by the state of California and shut down in 1999 for failure to meet minimum academic standards.

Plea, Alford. This plea allows a criminal defendant to plead guilty without admitting guilt and maintaining innocence while still acknowledging that prosecutors have enough “evidence” for a conviction. The plea gets its name from 1970’s North Carolina v. Alford and was proposed by defense attorneys for the WM3 as a way to finally get their clients out of prison. The State of Arkansas agreed to the deal to avoid being sued to the tune of several million dollars for its mishandling of the case and the years of their lives the WM3 lost because of it.

Questioning of Jessie Misskelley. When police picked him up for questioning, Jessie Misskelley told them he had been at a wrestling match in another town. After 12 hours of questioning, for which the police mysteriously only have 45 minutes of audiotape, Jessie offered police a confession that implicated the WM3. “I don’t like people keep on asking me questions when I done told them once,” Jessie said in a recent GQ article. “That’s what they did, they just egged it on. And finally, I just told the cops, look, you know, I did it. I killed them and everything.” This was the all the police had linking Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin to the crime. Jessie Misskelley was convicted for the crimes at his separate trial, but then refused to repeat this confession during the Echols-Baldwin trial — despite being offered considerable time off his own sentence if he agreed.

Robin Hood Hills. This small patch of woods where the neighborhood children conjures innocence and play but sadly, this is where the victim’s bodies were found: naked, hogtied, and submerged in water.

Sentencing. All three defendants were found guilty for the murders of Christopher Byers, Stevie Branch, and Michael Moore. Jessie Misskelley was sentenced to life in prison plus forty years, Jason Baldwin to three consecutive life sentences, and Damien Echols was sentenced to death by lethal injection.

Trailer parks. At one time or another, each of the WM3, lived in or near the Lakeshore and Highland Trailer Parks in northeastern Arkansas. “We were nothing but poor trailer trash,” Damien Echols said of his upbringing while incarcerated. The community was poor and uneducated, and had it not been for the film that shocked its viewers and roused a grassroots protest, it is doubtful that Damien Echols would be alive today.

Unusual supporter. In the first two films, John Mark Byers seemed to be the likely murderer. He figures largely in all three installments, castigating the devilish nature of the WM3, despite mounting evidence of their innocence of the crime. He has since apologized and worked actively on their behalf.

Villains or victims? It’s still a split decision in West Memphis.

West of Memphis. The title of Peter Jackson’s spin on the case made its debut at the Sundance Film Festival last month and it isn’t shy about suggesting Terry Hobbs committed the murders.

Xmas 1993. In the first “Paradise Lost,” the parents of victim Christopher Byers visit his grave and put a small Christmas tree on his tombstone. As strange as Mr. Byers appears to be (you have to see the film to understand what I mean by this) I couldn’t help but grieve with the Byers, celebrating the first Christmas without their son.

Youth. A lot changes in 18 years, just ask the WM3. Damien Echols, reflecting on all his years in prison, said, “It’s odd now when they tell me things like, ‘you’ve got arthritis,’ or when I see my hairline’s receding and my hair’s thinning.” Three teenaged boys were tried as adults, and lost their youth inside maximum-security prisons… for crimes they did not commit.

Zero. Nothing in evidence points to the WM3 being involved with the 1993 murders. Nothing ever has.

Legal As She Is Spoke is an online project of the Program in Law and Journalism at New York Law School. Our site reports on the state of legal journalism and encourages conversation about the accuracy and felicity of reporting on law.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

Michael Paul Williams: Virginia must let everyone know about wrongful convictions

The following opinion was published by the Richmond Times-Dispatch on February 7, 2012.

This situation calls for an intervention.

The Virginia Department of Forensic Science has been far too secretive about information that excludes at least 76 felons as the source of biological evidence in their cases. As of last month, 29 of the felons had not been notified that the new DNA reports existed.

Bennett S. Barbour learned only about two weeks ago that authorities — for 18 months — had a report excluding his DNA and identifying the DNA of a known offender in a 1978 rape. Officials said they could not find Barbour, even though he lives 5 miles from where he was arrested in rural Charles City County.

The post-conviction DNA project, paid for with state and federal funding, launched in 2005. It could be a groundbreaking effort to diagnose maladies in our criminal justice system. Instead, it's in danger of becoming a lost opportunity or a potential scandal.

The current notification process is inadequate. It has been shown that simply notifying law enforcement of DNA test results is insufficient. And the Department of Forensic Science is unwilling to share DNA test results with the public. This task must be placed in less-conflicted hands.

"The basic mistake in this situation is assuming that the goal of criminal justice is actually justice," said Kent Willis, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia.

"There is an inherent contradiction in expecting a state system designed, funded and rewarded for convicting criminals to aggressively pursue a course dedicated to proving the innocence of wrongly convicted persons."

One of Barbour's lawyers, Matthew Engle of the Innocence Project Clinic at the University of Virginia School of Law, decried the lack of sunlight in the process.

"We need to know what is the complete list of (DNA) exclusion, what's been done to notify people in those cases … and at this point nobody knows the answers to those questions but the Department of Forensic Science, and they're not telling," he said.

Steven D. Benjamin, a defense attorney and a member of the Virginia Board of Forensic Science, suggested the formation of a new state entity — "a separate independent body charged with the task of investigating any case where there is an indication that we may have gotten it wrong."

Benjamin, president-elect of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, also said the association would be willing to take on such an effort "in a heartbeat."

We should be offended that a taxpayer-supported department is sitting on public information and gravely concerned about the integrity of the criminal justice system. Each time an innocent person is convicted, a guilty person remains on the street to victimize others.

"It's like having a series of plane crashes and doing nothing to figure out why the plane fell out of the sky," Benjamin said. "It is irresponsible to not learn everything we possibly can from these tragic cases, so we can improve the system and make it work better."

Where wrongful convictions are concerned, the state cannot afford to sit on its mistakes.

Saturday, February 04, 2012

Cynic, optimist examine Alvarez' new 'philosophy'

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


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.