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Editorial: Recantations need to be given serious look

Jacques Riversheds tears next his sJacques Jr. while walking free Oct. 4 2011. | Richard A. Chapman~Sun-Times

Jacques Rivera sheds tears next to his son Jacques Jr. while walking free on Oct. 4, 2011. | Richard A. Chapman~Sun-Times

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Updated: July 7, 2012 8:33AM

Sometimes, the truth is right in front of us if only we’re paying attention.

Buried in recently released statistics about innocent people sent to prison was this startling fact: In about 20 percent of those convictions, a key witness had recanted early on — only to be met with a shrug and deaf ears.

Only later — sometimes many years later — were those cases overturned based on other evidence, giving innocent people a chance to finally walk free.

In retrospect, authorities should have paid closer attention to those recantations. And they should do so in the future as well. If a recantation seems plausible, they should consider the possibility it’s legit.

We understand this isn’t easy. In the criminal justice system, there is a need for finality. Once a trial is over, you can’t reopen it every time someone makes a new statement.

And you don’t want to encourage people to think they can overturn a verdict by pressuring key witnesses to change their stories.

But many of the recantations that were ignored or ridiculed were made by people who came forward without anyone asking them to. They spoke up because of guilty consciences or for other reasons.

Consider the locally famous case that should have been the first to bring attention to this issue. Back in 1985, Cathleen Crowell Webb recanted her testimony that she was raped by Gary Dotson, who’d been sent to prison. She just came forward on her own without prompting, but no one listened. It wasn’t until DNA testing came along and excluded Dotson that he was freed.

According to the statistics released two weeks ago by the Center on Wrongful Convictions and the University of Michigan Law School as part of a new National Registry of Exonerations, in Cook County there were 17 instances out of 78 documented wrongful convictions since 1989 in which recantations by key witnesses were given short shrift. Those cases ultimately were overturned based on other evidence.

In only one case, that of Jacques Rivera, did recanted testimony directly lead to an exoneration. Rivera was freed last year.

This probably isn’t an area where reform can effectively be written into law. But prosecutors, police and the judiciary should take a careful look at these cases.

And they should tell themselves that the next time a witness makes a possibly valid recantation, they won’t simply ignore it.

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