The Cook County State’s Attorney’s office has established a new six-person unit that will solely investigate wrongful convictions claims, which critics in the past have said weren’t sufficiently probed.
The office has always taken such cases seriously and has reversed murder convictions when it found people were erroneously put behind bars, State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez said Thursday.
But now Alvarez says she has a dedicated staff that will review the questionable convictions and pay particular attention to cases in which physical evidence was not fully examined and cases involving single eyewitnesses.
The creation of the unit marks a “shift in philosophy,” in which the office intends to “increase our focus and our openness about these cases,” Alvarez said at a City Club of Chicago luncheon.
“In my view, my job is not just about racking up convictions, it’s about always seeking justice, even if that measure of justice means that we must acknowledge mistakes of the past,” she said
The Conviction Integrity Unit, which has been operating for the last month, consists of three prosecutors, two investigators and one victim-witness specialist, Alvarez said.
Alvarez noted that many of current 35 cases the unit is now reviewing took place when DNA testing was primitive and interrogations weren’t videotaped. Today, investigators have the tools to do thorough examinations of the claims set force by innocence projects and defense attorneys, she said, adding that the unit will train younger prosecutors on what to look for when there may be a question on whether the right suspect was detained.
“Thirty years ago maybe we were quicker to approve a charge than we are today,” Alvarez told reporters afterward.
During her 20-minute speech, Alvarez expressed dismay at being compared to the “Gestapo” during the legal showdown with David Protess, the former head of Northwestern University’s Medill Innocence Project. Prosecutors, like journalists, were seeking the truth, when they sought and eventually won the right to examine roughly 500 emails student journalists exchanged with Protess in their investigation into whether the wrong man was put behind bars for a 1978 Harvey murder, she said. But Protess spun it as an “us vs. them” situation in the press, Alvarez said.
In an email Thursday, Protess said since Alvarez’s name is on the “subpoena for my students’ notes and grades, she instigated the ‘us vs. them’ dynamic.”
He did, however, applaud the state’s attorney’s Conviction Integrity Unit.
“I fully support the idea of a wrongful convictions unit and will bring our cases to its attention in the future,” Protess said.
“We should have a common interest in pursuing justice, as we have had in the past.”