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Rivera Case Puts DNA Evidence, How it's Handled As Key Issue

Lake County State's Attorney candidates answer questions at forum.

 

The wrongful prosection case of Juan Rivera gained national attention following his release after 20 years in state prison. The case shined a light on Lake County prosecutors and police who resisted his release even after DNA evidence indicated the 11-year-old Waukegan girl was raped by another man.

DNA evidence and its use has become a critical issue in the race for Lake County State's Attorney among six candidates, including two current assistant state's attorneys.

One of those is Louise Hayes, a Lake Bluff resident who became an assistant state's attorney in 1990. She touts her experience in the office as the best and most compared to her opponents.

Reginald Mathews has not been an assistant state's attorney for as long as Hayes, but has a decade of experience behind him. He resides in Lindenhurst.

Chris Kennedy, who lives in Libertyville and practices law in Lake Forest, has been an attorney for 17 years. He believes the Lake County State's Attorney office has become "Exhibit A in the national debate of wrongful convictions."

Bryan Winter is the senior member of the group with more than 27 years of law practice. For the last seven years, he has been the chief legal officer for Gurnee, which is the second largest municipality in the county. He is also a past president of the Lake County Bar Association.

Karen Boyd Williams has her own law practice in Mundelein. She has an MBA and an extensive background in human resources.

The candidates answered questions in last Sunday's candidate forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Lake County (LWV) at the University Center in Grayslake. The questions were drawn from the LWV, the Daily Herald and audience members. Here is a cross-section of those questions and their responses.

 

  • DNA is such an important part of this election. Have you specifically prosecuted and/or defended with DNA. Not someone in your office, but you specifically. What education/ experience have you had with DNA.

Mike Nerheim:

"I have both prosecuted and defended cases using DNA. I have prosecuted rape cases as an assistant state’s attorney using DNA. I have used DNA in defense of clients charged with serious felony cases. I am on the faculty on Columbia College of Missouri where I teach evidence, and part of my class is teaching DNA. I have the most experience with DNA of everyone here."

Louise Hayes:

"Over the last 20 years in the state's attorney's office, I have prosecuted cases using DNA. I have not defended a case using DNA. When I am state’s attorney, I hope to have everyone trained in DNA from top to bottom by forensic experts. That is one of the goals I set last summer. There is definitely some lacking DNA experience in our office."

Karen Boyd Williams:

"I have not had experience defending or prosecuting cases with DNA except to the extent of family law litigation. I will have training for my staff and myself."

Bryan Winter:

"I have not had a DNA case in the criminal setting. I have handled numerous product liability and medical cases that certainly have had experts, sometimes forensic experts in product liability cases. What’s important in the DNA area is that it is a piece of evidence. But it is how the office processes that evidence and how it considers that evidence in its prosecution of cases, which has been an issue that has been raised in a couple of cases."

Reginald Mathews:

"Of all the candidates, I am the only full-time prosecutor who has prosecuted cases with DNA. I have dismissed cases where the DNA showed it wasn’t the individual, and I have dismissed them right away. I haven’t waited. I have done it right away. DNA is a piece of evidence. And it should be viewed in light of the other evidence around it. You need to look at the total evidence, not in isolation."

Chris Kennedy:

"I have taught criminal justice, criminal evidence classes including DNA evidence. The issue here though is not whether we have collected it properly, whether we have entered into evidence properly, or gotten it admitted into the CODA data base, it’s whether we have be willing to or willing as your public servants to accept what that DNA evidence means for your case. In all the cases that have been in the media, there was never a legitimate question as to whether or not DNA evidence tested out properly. The question was, are we willing to accept that we are in error, and what are we going to do about it when we do discover it? In the appellate court argument, and I agreed with it, DNA is God’s gift to forensic science. We can’t ignore it or explain it away in outlandish terms. What we need to do is have the courage to accept what it means."

 

  • Name one new program or emphasis you will initiate as state’s attorney?

Louise Hayes:

"Last summer when I announced I would run, I indicated that we would implement a post conviction review board. Our office in the last two weeks has just started that program. I think it will benefit the office."

Karen Boyd Williams:

"One of the programs to implement is a community outreach program educating and involving the public in what goes on with the state’s attorney office. I think there are far too many voters who don’t understand what the state’s attorney office does, how many divisions it has and what it handles. I also believe there are several programs that the state’s attorney office and police have in place for victims that the community needs to be educated about. I would put together a task force together to go out to set up educational programs."

Bryan Winter:

"As long as the integrity panel has been mentioned (by Hayes), that too would be one of the programs I would institute. It would be a conviction integrity panel, it would not be merely a post conviction. Essentially, that program has begun now, but there are no written protocols. That will have to be done. What is really needed, before you get to the conviction, that you are helping the assistants that are assigned to cases so at some point, almost having a mock trial, and I have participated in a couple on major cases, it forces the attorney that is handling the case to do is present a synopsis of a case. Actually some of the evidence appears so they can hear your case, so the attorneys in your office are following the right path. That is something that has to be done in an conviction integrity panel that happens at the very beginning and goes throughout the process."

Reginald Mathews:

"Post conviction integrity panel sounds like a good idea, and if it’s implemented, that’s fine. But we need to do it before we get there. Before we imprison someone or take someone’s life or liberty away from him or her. We need to make sure we have done it based on the evidence and nothing but the evidence. That’s why I propose a vertical prosecution unit for violent crimes. At the very onset when a case comes in, it will be assigned to an assistant who will handle it from indictment stage all the way through to plea or trial. They can get hold of the case right away and discover if there is DNA involved and get on top of it right away so that we are not hearing about it years later."

Chris Kennedy:

"When I announced my candidacy July 7, I announced my first order of business would be to implement a conviction integrity unit. I’m glad to hear that is now being taken up by others. I believe it should not only have a post conviction authority, but also have authority going forward so the state’s attorneys themselves can initiate it, or but also defense if there is a plausible claim of actual innocence in a case, they can bring it before this unit. My proposal is a specific unit empowered by the office with an advisory panel of outside people. I would also establish a sex crimes unit. These are extremely difficult cases that shouldn’t be lumped into an ordinary docket of an overburdened felony assistant. They should be handled with individual care and with the time and resources needed to deal with them."

Mike Nerheim:

"I, too, have been proposing this panel since Day One. My unit would consist of more than one person. It would be a panel of people from a wide variety of experience, including defense attorneys, retired judges, prosecutors and law enforcement, who would look at some of these old cases to ensure these convictions were handled properly. This is more than just looking at old cases. If you get it after a conviction, it’s often too late. The panel would also look at protocols to ensure we get it done right the first time."

 

  • List practical ways you will take care of the backlog of DNA evidence that should be processed and the information be used correctly.

Bryan Winter:

"We’re very fortunate. The Northern Illinois Crime Lab is doing a good job,. There still is a backlog. But if there is a case where the state needs to have evidence processed in a more timely fashion, they can submit a priority request and get the information in short order. With regard to DNA evidence, there is no question that there should not be any concerns by our residents that the office is seriously considering DNA evidence at the earliest opportunity in every case. The technology has developed over the last 20 years. It is much more accessible. It is an effective way to investigate and close cases. There is the platform to handle those cases properly."

Reginald Mathews:

"This is where my vertical prosecution unit comes in. We do rely on the Northern Illinois Crime Lab to process that information. They are not the only crime lab. There is the Illinois State Police Crime Lab. There are other crime labs around the country. We should not allow one place to monopolize it. If they are backlogged, we need to go to another agency. Society must come first. There is no expense to place on someone’s life and freedom, or on the victims to make sure the case is properly prosecuted."

Chris Kennedy:

"A new law went into effect on Jan. 1 that requires testing of all sex offenders in the state of Illinois without regard to where they committed their offense. It will also move up the time period for testing someone and taking their DNA sample from a time of conviction up until a time of finding a probable cause. We have seen more samples coming in. So the backlog in DNA testing in crime labs is already underway. I think the state’s attorney can take the role of advocate in asking and demanding for greater budgetary resources that is also part of that law to be assigned to stop the backlog. These are critical cases and we can prevent more crime by getting these things into the database system. Rape kits are still backlogged and consistently have been for many years, and again, the role of state’s attorney can be one of an advocate to forcefully demand these be taken care of."

Mike Nerheim:

"This is a growing problem. Every felony conviction requires a person to submit a sample of DNA into the database that is already backlogged. I foresee a situation in the near future that with every arrest, people will be required to submit a DNA sample. This will continue to increase the problem. We need to work with the State Police and with the authorities to ensure the proper funding is granted to these agencies to continue to test this and make sure the backlog is reduced. We can work as prosecutors to flag those cases early on where DNA is going to be a key issue, focus on those cases, work with the lab so those cases are moved up and we can get the DNA tested quickly."

Louise Hayes:

"The state’s attorney office already does prioritized cases that we need the DNA on quickly. There is a backlog. I think the state’s attorney needs to work with the crime labs, we could use the Illinois State Police Crime lab more, but funding is going to be an issue. We need to look at some outside resources we can obtain because the County Board is very strict with our budget. I don’t see any extra money coming from them any time soon. Reaching out to other crime labs in the area on very serious cases is the way to go."

Karen Boyd Williams:

"There are three key things in helping to prevent a backlog. We need to break up monopolies as far as any of the labs are concerned. We’re at their mercy with regard to the time issue, so spreading out where the forensic evidence is issued. Agree with Mathews, we should not be cutting costs and making money available."

Jim Powers February 17, 2012 at 02:41 PM
Thanks, Abbie. We look forward to your participation and others!
Bonita February 20, 2012 at 02:00 PM
This is very beneficial. Actually reading the responses of these candidates is the best way to make a voting decision. I am very impressed with Mike Nierheim! Thank you!
MichaelS February 22, 2012 at 03:07 PM
Mike Nerheim definitely has the necessary experience over the others
Sports lover February 22, 2012 at 06:13 PM
Louis Hayes gets my vote
Jose Cuervo February 22, 2012 at 11:57 PM
I enjoyed the opportunity to listen and learn. Having the opportunity to also meet the candidates, there is no doubts left for me Mike Nerheim, you have earned my vote!

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