Eliminating criminal injustice

By Gregory Cappis

Marcus Lyons wasted three years of his life behind bars for a crime committed by someone else. He said this happened because he was the only person in a photo lineup wearing a necktie and not holding a sign.

Lyons may never have been convicted if reforms proposed to the Illinois Senate Criminal Law committee on Oct. 3 were enacted in the 1980s. Using a computer program to generate impartial photo lineups was one reform introduced to the committee at the Bilandic Building, 160 N. LaSalle St. Seven members of the Illinois General Assembly heard testimony by members of the Better Government Association, Northwestern University’s Center of Wrongful Convictions, a state’s attorney, three men who were wrongfully convicted and other experts in the field.

Lyons was one of the men forced to unjustly spend time in prison. He served three years for a sexual assault that occurred at his apartment complex in 1987. After being released, he fought to clear his name, and was finally exonerated by DNA evidence in 2007. He even resorted to nontraditional measures.

“I took a wooden cross and nailed myself, in Navy uniform, to the cross outside the courthouse to let the Navy know I needed some help,” said Lyons, a former midshipman.

Lyons is one of 85 people proven to be wrongfully convicted in Illinois. According to a study by the BGA and CWC, these 85 men have spent a combined 926 years in jail or prison, costing taxpayers $214 million. This is a very conservative number, according to Andy Shaw, CEO and president of the BGA. The $214 million includes the cost of incarceration, compensation to exonerees and civil court costs.

There are 16 more civil cases pending, which will add to this number.

As reported by the Chicago Tribune on Oct. 5, Harold Hill–a man who spent 12 years in prison for falsely confessing to a rape and murder–and his lawyers are set to receive a total of $1.25 million from the city, already increasing the cost to taxpayers to more than $215 million in a time when the city is in deep debt.

The reforms proposed to Illinois legislators include the recording of all felony interrogations, making forensic labs independent from police stations and using blind administration of photo lineups.

Blind administration means the official overseeing the lineup does not know who the suspect is. This way the administrator cannot say things like, “Why don’t you take a closer look at No. 4?” Shaw said.

These reforms would possibly be implemented to prevent future wrongful convictions, which cost the city money and people their lives.

The Cook County Sheriff’s Office uses the traditional lineup procedure where six people are put in the room at the same time, said Steve Patterson, director of communications for the Cook County Sheriff, in an email. He did not respond to questions regarding whether or not the sheriff’s office is considering implementing the reforms introduced by the BGA and CWC.

Illinois passed a law in 2003 requiring the videotaping of all interrogations that involve a homicide.

Eric Caine said he wishes this law was in effect when, during an interrogation, he was brutally tortured by police under the command of Jon Burge. His eardrum was ruptured and he sustained many bruises that did not appear on his dark black skin. He ended up falsely confessing to a double homicide, which cost him 25 years of his life.

“I confessed beca-use I was scared to death that I was going to die in the police station,” Caine said.

False confessions occurred in approximately 25 percent of the cases studied. These confessions can result from a multitude of causes, as previously reported by The Chronicle on Sept. 12.

“Illinois is the false confession capital of the world,” said Rob Warden, president of the CWC, who believes these reforms could guard against this problem.

Warden believes that all felony interrogations should be taped. He said 6 percent of capital cases have convicted the wrong individual. If that number is transferred to the nearly 100,000 felonies per year in Illinois, then almost 6,000 people are wrongfully convicted in this state each year.

Matt Jones, appellate court state’s attorney, said all of these 85 wrongful conviction cases occurred before 2003, when the videotape reform was put into place. He noted that less than 1 percent of felonies are homicide cases.

“I want to stand behind you and expand those reforms for the other 99 percent of [felony] cases,” said state Senator Kwame Raoul of the 13th District.