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Good on ya, Kim Foxx, for righting old wrongs

Thursday, November 16, 2017
Chicago Tribune
by Eric Zorn

Follow-up memo to Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx:

A week ago in this space I took you to task for dragging your feet in the case of two men who remain in prison despite DNA test results you’ve had for more than five months that very strongly suggest they’re innocent in a 1994 rape and murder in the Englewood neighborhood.

This, in turn, led to me conclude that you’re not quite the reformer you led voters to believe you were when you ran your successful campaign to unseat State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez last year.

So today, since one should never preach fairness without practicing it, I salute you for two subsequent, unrelated decisions:

1. To drop charges Tuesday and free a man who’s been in prison for nearly 30 years, a move you said you made because of your “deep concerns about the fairness” of his conviction in a fatal arson case.

2. To vacate the convictions Thursday of 15 men who say they were framed on drug charges by former Chicago police Sgt. Ronald Watts and officers under his command.

These were tough decisions and therefore brave, even though the arson case had fallen apart and evidence of Watts’ corruption is overwhelming. Your decisions violated the clear cultural norm in law enforcement to cling to and defend convictions even in the face of rising doubts.

They challenged the integrity and judgment of your predecessors and of members of the police department.

And they posed a risk. Should one or more of these exonerees go on to commit a serious crime, fingers of blame will be wagged in your direction.

But these decisions also sent a very beneficial signal — a signal that you do, in fact, as advertised, see truth-seeking as an integral component of your job. And that the public should trust that you are more interested in justice than victory or vindication.

That trust will pay dividends. Socially. Legally. Politically.

In an interview on WLS-AM 890 Thursday morning, you took issue with the scolding I gave you last week.

You told newsman John Dempsey, “While I can appreciate Mr. Zorn wanting to make sure that justice is served, he also did not have the benefit of the case file and the evidence (in the 1994 Englewood rape and murder), and we can’t litigate our cases in the media.”

Admittedly, my commentary relied on the exhaustive research by Tribune reporter Gregory Pratt and not a firsthand review of the files. And prosecutors do tend to have much more information than journalists.

But, trust me, the coverage of every wrongful conviction case ridden hard by the media and ultimately reversed began with police and prosecutors dismissively deriding the ignorance of reporters.

And when old cases this troubling are in the news, you can and should be utterly transparent with us — not to litigate but to explain, to bolster the public confidence you need to do your job as well as possible.

“I can’t make decisions on exonerations or convictions based on public pressure,” you went on, telling Dempsey that your investigation into that 1994 case that troubles me is ongoing. “I certainly don’t think trying to sway a prosecutor by public pressure is the way to do it. It’s not in the best interests of justice.”

Agreed. But what you see as an attempt to generate pressure I see as an attempt to build support — the creation of the sort of public awareness that makes it easier for you to do the right thing, which is always in the interests of justice.

You have many tough decisions ahead. The lead attorney for the 15 men exonerated Thursday told the Tribune’s Jason Meisner that Watts and his crew of dirty cops are responsible for more than 400 questionable convictions. And there are dozens of outstanding convictions that are rooted in confessions obtained by the famously brutal and discredited former Chicago police Detective Reynaldo Guevara.

These decisions will not be easy. But your actions this week have bolstered my once flagging belief that you’ll act fearlessly and fairly in each case — damn the critics or the consequences.

No pressure.

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