Cook County re-examines dubious convictions as part of a growing national trend

By Mary Cirincione

Prosecutors across the nation resisted re-opening closed cases for years, even when presented with new evidence that could potentially prove innocence. Chicagoans know this firsthand—three innocent men spent more than a dozen years in prison for the 1983 rape and murder of 10-year-old Jeanine Nicarico.

Recently, that attitude of resistance seems to have given way to one of receptiveness. Prosecutor’s offices nationwide are building dedicated teams of lawyers to review innocence claims and open the door for exonerations. Teams in Texas, Ohio, New York, Illinois and most recently Washington, D.C., are evidence of a growing trend to re-examine closed cases.

Northwestern Law School’s Center on Wrongful Convictions brought together prosecutors, law enforcement, legal experts and exonerated individuals Wednesday to discuss the driving force behind specialized conviction integrity units. Co-presented with the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office, the conference was the first attempt at opening up communication channels between prosecutorial teams and innocence projects like Northwestern’s.

“Wrongful convictions are real, they happen,” said Keith Findley, co-director of the Innocence Project, during a panel discussion. There have been 1,465 exonerations nationally to date, he said. Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez noted that is a tiny fraction of the total incarcerated community.

Alvarez established the first conviction integrity unit in Illinois in 2012, now one of 20 units nationwide. Although her office has accepted cases worked by the Center on Wrongful Convictions, they have not collaborated until this conference.

Karen Daniel, director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions, said the center and state’s attorney’s office are working toward the same end: “We’re looking for the truth, we’re looking for what actually happened, and we share a goal of not having innocent people go to prison for crimes they didn’t commit.”

Alvarez has vacated the convictions of nine individuals in the past two years, solely on the basis of her team’s findings. “To date we have reviewed and closed 155 cases, and we currently have approximately 180 cases pending,” she said.

She took a lot of heat in 2012 after she suggested during an interview with “60 Minutes” that DNA evidence is disputable. Despite those statements, her office has used DNA to secure exonerations.

Alvarez said Wednesday that the Cook County conviction integrity unit remains committed to taking another look at an old case when it’s warranted. “When we have determined that a convicted person was convicted wrongfully, we have corrected that mistake,” she added.

Alan Beaman is proof that mistakes happen. Convicted for the 1993 murder of his ex-girlfriend, Beaman was released in 2008 after spending 13 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. Efforts by the Center on Wrongful Convictions played a key role in his release, something for which Beaman is grateful. “Certainly without their help, I would still be in there. I like to point out to people that my daughter would not exist if that were the case.”

Beaman said he wants prosecutors to realize that admitting a mistake is not always a career-ender, and he hopes the attitude will someday shift. “It needs to be OK culturally for a prosecutor to say ‘I screwed up.’ It needs to be politically fashionable for a prosecutor to say, ‘I cannot try this case because we don’t have the evidence,’” he said.