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Editorial: Getting prosecutions right is a never-ending job

Cook County State’s Attorney AnitAlvarez announces Feb. 2 2012 City Club Chicago formatiConvictiIntegrity Unit. | John H. White~Chicago Sun-Times

Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez announces on Feb. 2, 2012 at the City Club of Chicago the formation of a Conviction Integrity Unit. | John H. White~Chicago Sun-Times

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Updated: February 11, 2013 7:25AM

As soon as he stepped into his new job as Lake County state’s attorney, Mike Nerheim said all the right things about how his office will pursue criminal cases with integrity. But saying so is easy. Doing it will require a long-term commitment, often in the face of resistance from police, prosecutors and even the public.

Directly after he was sworn in last month, Nerheim created a Case Review Panel and a Public Integrity Unit to take a second look at cases where justice might have gone off the rails. It was a promising move in an office that had become known for brazenly pursuing prosecutions of men whom DNA had virtually eliminated as suspects. But Nerheim must ensure those panels are effective over time, even at the risk of becoming the most unpopular guy at the local cops’ bar, and not just window dressing.

He also must make it clear that old practices in the office must change and that staff members who don’t see a problem with the old ways are replaced.

The Lake County cases that had grabbed headlines were those of Juan Rivera, Jerry Hobbs and Bennie Starks. Rivera languished in prison for 19 years for a 1992 rape and murder, even though he was excluded as the rapist by two DNA tests and an electronic monitoring device that showed he was at home at the time of the crime. Hobbs spent five years in jail awaiting trial for a double murder, though DNA from the scene didn’t match him. Starks spent 20 years in prison for the rape and murder of a neighbor, though DNA didn’t match.

Hobbs was freed in 2010, Rivera walked out of prison last January and Starks was finally officially cleared on Monday when Nerheim, who is both a former prosecutor and defense lawyer, vacated the final charge against him.

But as in any prosecutor’s office, there are many more cases in which defendants and their lawyers feel justice wasn’t done. And those cases will crop up in the future. It takes a firm commitment to revisit old cases when new ones keep coming.

Both the Lake County and Cook County state’s attorney’s office have been criticized for harboring prosecutors who think anyone who comes through the door ought to go to prison. That’s a dangerous attitude given the enormous powers prosecutors have to wreak havoc on the lives of the innocent.

In Cook County almost a year ago, State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez created a Conviction Integrity Unit to re-examine old cases. The only case it has turned up so far is that of Alprentiss Nash, which already had been undermined by new DNA evidence.

At a press conference in August at which she announced she was vacating charges against Nash, Alvarez acknowledged the pace is slow.

“There’s a lot of work that we need to do to re-investigate, re-interview — find[ing] the witnesses sometimes 20 years later is a difficult thing,” she said.

In Texas, the Dallas County district attorney has launched a serious effort to reinvestigate old cases, and has turned up numerous cases of innocent people in prison. But few jurisdictions have made that kind of effort.

Moreover, it’s not enough to look for old cases that can be cleared up with modern DNA testing. Other major sources of wrongful convictions are victim misidentification and false confessions. The pleas of innocent defendants and convicts should not be ignored just because they have no DNA evidence to back them up.

Like Alvarez, Nerheim has made a start. But does he have the political courage to open every new can of worms that must be opened?

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