Even for Cook County, which has seen nearly 100 wrongful convictions exposed in the last quarter-century, Tuesday was momentous. The convictions of two men for a 1992 double murder were thrown out the same day a record $40 million settlement was made public in the case of five men wrongly convicted of a 1991 rape and murder in Dixmoor.
Both cases went to trial long before reforms in 2003 mandated that police throughout Illinois videotape interrogations of homicide suspects. The reforms, law enforcement officials say, have lowered the risk of false confessions. A cultural shift should help as well, according to police and prosecutors, who say they are more aware than ever of how their actions can lead to wrongful convictions. Finally, improved technology — from surveillance cameras to GPS — gives law enforcement more tools to ensure they arrested and prosecuted the right person.
"What we've all learned and what we've seen is that the way the police did things in 1992 is not the way they do things now. And that's a good thing," said State's Attorney Anita Alvarez, who has wrestled with wrongful convictions since coming to office in 2008. "The reforms are working, and we do see a difference. Whoever is going to be state's attorney 30 years from now isn't going to be dealing with what I'm dealing with now."
Criminal defense attorneys and lawyers who litigate civil rights lawsuits applaud the reforms but say it is too soon to determine if the measures are working. Wrongful convictions, they say, often do not emerge for decades as inmates struggle to press innocence claims.
"It doesn't mean there aren't false confessions anymore. It just means they haven't come to light yet," said Joshua Tepfer, an attorney with Northwestern University Law School's Center on Wrongful Convictions who represented one of the Dixmoor Five.
Indeed, the lag between conviction and exoneration averages about 10 years, according to the National Registry of Exonerations, a joint project between the law schools at Northwestern and the University of Michigan that compiles and studies wrongful convictions.
"I wouldn't be surprised if there's a sea change, if it's a different world," said Samuel Gross, a professor at Michigan's law school who has studied wrongful convictions and is the national registry's editor. "But we have no idea. There may be wrongful convictions that have yet to emerge."
Since 1989, there have been 98 wrongful convictions in Cook County, according to the national registry. All but six stem from cases that occurred before 2003, when then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich signed the law that required police to videotape interrogations in homicide investigations. A false confession was at the center of only one of those six cases. In that case, the confession was videotaped, but not the interrogation, of Nicole Harris, who was convicted of killing her 4-year-old son and spent nearly eight years in prison.
In many ways, the false confession and wrongful conviction phenomenon in Cook County, and the rest of the country, was a product of the high crime levels of the 1980s and '90s. Detective units were taxed by soaring murder counts fueled by the crack cocaine epidemic. At the same time, police were less sophisticated and sometimes heavy-handed, while the forensics of the times were less precise. Adding to the tally of wrongful convictions, now-imprisoned Chicago police Cmdr. Jon Burge led a crew of detectives accused of torturing suspects into making false confessions.
In an interview last week, Alvarez called videotaping a "godsend" to police and prosecutors. It helps convict suspects who confess, she said, but also protects police accused of coercing a confession.
Last year, the state legislature expanded videotaping to eight other violent felonies, including armed robbery, aggravated criminal sexual assault and aggravated battery with a gun. Alvarez, who began a Conviction Integrity Unit to evaluate innocence claims, supported the expanded videotaping.
Fabio Valentini, chief of the office's criminal prosecutions bureau, said videotaping "eliminates unanswered questions."
What's more, he said, prosecutors nationwide have undergone a shift in how they approach their work, focusing less on winning convictions than on achieving justice. He said assistant state's attorneys are more open-minded to the possibility of wrongful convictions from the past and with cases still working their way through the courts.
"The likelihood of a case coming back in five or 10 years where we're going to find out, 'Oh my God, that's a terrible mistake' — I think the likelihood is far less," Valentini said. Attorneys specializing in wrongful conviction cases say police and prosecutors may have changed, but not enough. They point to the often fierce opposition of prosecutors to exonerating inmates or agreeing to certificates of innocence, which allow those cleared of wrongdoing to seek compensation from the state.
They also say that police and prosecutors are unwilling to hold themselves accountable for false confessions and wrongful convictions.
Still, they said they believe videotaping interrogations will no doubt help. But it won't detect the manipulation of witnesses, a problem that attorney Jon Loevy said so far has resisted reform. But interrogations will be more transparent and, according to Northwestern's Tepfer, will reveal if detectives feed a suspect information about a crime that winds up in a confession — deliberately or inadvertently. Unraveling a false confession depends on so many disparate factors that many wrongful convictions are likely never unearthed, said Michigan's Gross. Indeed, some inmates complete prison sentences before they are able to prove their innocence. Lewis Gardner and Paul Phillips, whose convictions for a double murder were thrown out last week, finished their prison stints years earlier.
"If there are some new false confessions," Gross said, "why do we think we'd find out about them any faster than we have in the past?"