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The Baltimore Sun

State's attorney announces new unit to review prosecutions

Tribune reporter

After years of criticism from some legal circles for the way her office has handled wrongful conviction cases, Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez said today she has formed a new unit to review prosecutions that have come under question.

Speaking at the City Club of Chicago, Alvarez said the conviction integrity unit marks a “shift in philosophy in which we intend to increase our focus and our openness about these cases.”
The unit, which began operating last month, is staffed by three assistant state’s attorneys, two investigators, and a victim-witness coordinator, she said.

The unit will pay particular attention to the kind of cases that have often proved to be problematic – including confessions by young defendants or cases that rely on a single eyewitness, Alvarez said.

Since Alvarez was elected in 2008, there have been at least 13 prosecutions in which wrongfully convicted men had charges from years earlier dropped amid allegations of police torture, coerced confessions or DNA evidence that implicated others in a crime.

Last year, a group of influential Chicago lawyers and politicians filed a “friend-of-the-court” brief on behalf of seven men convicted of murder as teens in which they expressed concern by what they contended was Alvarez ‘s penchant to fight new trials even when clear evidence of innocence existed.

In her 30-minute speech today, Alvarez defended the way her office has handled these controversies, saying her prosecutors have often worked with innocence projects to “thoroughly investigate claims of wrongful convictions to make sure that those in prison are there correctly.”

“In my view, my job is not just about racking up convictions, it is about always seeking justice, even if that measure of justice means that we must acknowledge mistakes of the past,” Alvarez said.

Alvarez, who is running for re-election and is unopposed in the Democratic primary in March , also recapped her first term in office, cracking several jokes about what she described as unfair media coverage.

“There were things in store for me that I never saw coming,” Alvarez said. “And no offense to any of the reporters who are here, but my biggest headaches have not been from criminals in the courtroom but rather in the newsroom.”

Alvarez also scoffed at the idea that she had anything to do with burying an investigation into the 2004 death of David Koschman during a drunken confrontation with a nephew of former Mayor Richard Daley. Earlier this week, Alvarez’s office opposed a request by Koschman’s mother that a special prosecutor be appointed to look into the investigation into his death.

“I could never have predicted that I would be accused of engaging in a political cover-up …to protect the nephew of our former mayor,” Alvarez said. “Never mind that I did not know and have never met the person that I am accused of sacrificing my integrity to cover up (for).”

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