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Editorial: Better laws can help keep the innocent from prison

Updated: November 15, 2011 12:43PM

The freeing of Jacques Rivera Tuesday after 20 years in prison is a stark reminder that Illinois has far to go to protect innocent people from being wrongly convicted.

Rivera, 46, was serving an 80-year sentence for a murder that occurred 21 years ago, but charges against him were dropped after Circuit Court Judge Neera Walsh ruled that the recantation of the prosecution’s star witness was credible.

People who never personally encounter the criminal justice system tend to have a romanticized notion of how accurate verdicts really are. But story after story has emerged of men who spent much of their lives in prison for crimes they didn’t commit. Rivera’s case is only the most recent example of someone being sent away based on evidence or testimony that should have been more thoroughly questioned at the time. Illinois must do better.

On Monday, the Illinois Senate’s Criminal Law Committee met in Chicago to begin work on a series of reforms that could lead to legislation either in the veto session that begins this month or in the legislative session that begins in January. This is an important effort that could lead to meaningful reform.

According to a recent investigation by the Better Government Association and the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law, wrongful convictions for violent crimes have cost Illinois taxpayers $214 million and have imprisoned innocent people for a total of 926 years. Meanwhile, the actual perps — left free while authorities pursued the wrong men — committed 14 murders, 11 sexual assaults, 10 kidnappings and at least 62 other felonies.

Authorities face a difficult challenge keeping the rest of us safe from criminals, but there are reforms that could help ensure the actual culprits are the ones who go to prison.

Flawed eyewitness identification is the leading cause of wrongful convictions nationwide, according to the Innocence Project. Of 273 convictions that have been overturned by DNA evidence, eyewitnesses were wrong 75 percent of the time, the Innocence Project says.

To cut down on inaccurate eyewitness testimony, Illinois should require “double-blind” lineups of suspects and sequential photo lineups. When double-blind lineups are used, neither the witness nor the police conducting the lineup are told who the suspect is, which guards against deliberately or unconsciously shading the results. With sequential photo lineups, victims are shown photos of suspects one at a time instead of being presented with an array all at once. Research has shown the sequential process cuts down on misidentification.

Illinois already requires the electronic recording of homicide interrogations by police, a recent successful change that has converted former doubters. Now, the Legislature should require electronic recording of interrogations of suspects in all serious crimes, from armed robbery to aggravated assault. Many other possible reforms also will be discussed.

No innocent person should ever go to prison in Illinois. The Legislature should do all it can to prevent it.

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