As I talk with voters in every corner of Lake County, one topic comes up over and over again — wrongful convictions. In the last 18 months, a series of prominent cases prosecuted by the Lake County State’s Attorney’s Office have fallen apart amid charges of wrongful convictions. In many cases, DNA evidence has appeared to exonerate defendants, even at early stages of prosecution, yet has been ignored or downplayed.
These cases have massive consequences, not just for those who were imprisoned, but for all of us taxpayers facing multi-million dollar lawsuits, as well as for the safety of people inside and outside Lake County. It is not surprising that this is the biggest issue on voters’ minds.
What is surprising, however, is that no real steps have been taken to solve this problem. The Lake County State’s Attorney’s office has been occupied by one party for 32 years and clearly needs new solutions, an outsider’s perspective, and proven leadership to make sure the public is protected from the type of prosecutorial practices we see today.
On my first day as State’s Attorney, I will get to the heart of this problem by creating a Conviction Integrity Unit. This Unit will correct and prevent wrongful convictions, while also preventing further crimes.
This is what the Unit would do:
- Independently investigate and make recommendations on certain challenged convictions, with full authority to test evidence if necessary; the State’s Attorney should stop resisting testing and follow evidence wherever it leads;
- Prosecute cold cases where evidence suggests different, or additional, perpetrators; and
- Oversee ongoing cases, investigations, and training to ensure that evidence is properly collected, tested and evaluated at the earliest opportunity in every case.
In addition to investigations initiated by the State’s Attorney, the Conviction Integrity Unit may also review claims made by or on behalf of a convicted defendant who presents a meaningful, substantive claim of actual innocence. The Unit will also review and oversee procedures and training of Assistant State’s Attorneys and investigators in the proper collection and testing of evidence, best practice interrogation techniques and recording protocols, case assessment, and disclosure obligations. A special focus of this training will be on preventing errors due to misidentification by eyewitnesses, false testimony by incentivized witnesses (i.e., “jailhouse snitches”), and false confessions.
The Conviction Integrity Unit would consist of a prosecutor without any ties to the original convictions, who would report directly to me and work with a senior investigator, who also has no ties to the cases. The Conviction Integrity Unit would additionally utilize the advice of an outside advisory board comprised of leading experts in criminal justice, including legal scholars and former prosecutors, who would voluntarily serve and advise on best practices. Unlike other ideas being floated, this advisory board would not make determinations or review specific cases. Potential conflicts of interest and other ethical and practical issues simply make that proposal unrealistic and ineffective.
Studies published in the past decade have shown how wrongful convictions can come about—and how prosecutors can help prevent them. We can and must do better. The Lake County State’s Attorney’s Office should be a model for best practices, instead of an example of what can go wrong.
Only by honestly assessing the causes of these problems and confronting them head-on, can we prevent them from being repeated. I believe my Conviction Integrity Unit will drive systemic institutional reform and cultural change in the State’s Attorney’s office to embrace best practices in the prosecution of criminal cases—serious, smart improvements, which will raise the level of professionalism in the justice system, bolster public confidence in the prosecutor’s office and, ultimately, help increase public safety.
We need to move beyond the missteps of the past and become a model for fair justice.
Chris Kennedy is a Libertyville attorney and Democratic candidate for Lake County State's Attorney. For more information about Chris’s Blueprint for Justice, visit www.chriskennedy2012.com/issues.