Illinois

Illinois

Federal Jury Awards Illinois Death Row Exoneree $22 Million in Damages

A federal jury awarded $22 million in damages to Nathson Fields (pictured), who was wrongfully convicted of a gang-related murder and sentenced to death in 1986. Fields was exonerated in 2009. The jury found that two Chicago police detectives violated Fields' civil rights by hiding critical evidence that suggested he did not commit the crime of which he was convicted. For many years, the Chicago police department maintained a practice of keeping secret "street files" on potential suspects. That policy was officially terminated in 1983, after exposure by a whistleblower. The secret files were hidden in a storage basement where they would not be subject to subpoena. Despite the department's claims that it was no longer keeping such files, the jury found that at the time Fields was arrested and charged, the city had a pattern and practice of keeping the secret street files in homicide investigations even though it had officially disavowed the practice. Hundreds of street files were discovered in 2011, including one relating to Fields. Fields' file contained handwritten notes on alternate suspects and lineup cards that had been withheld from his attorneys at his trial. In addition to the $22 million award for which the city of Chicago is liable, the jury also assessed a total of $40,000 in punitive damages against Sgt. David O'Callaghan and Lt. Joseph Murphy personally, which the men may be required to pay themselves. At a press conference after the ruling, Fields described the despair he had felt during his time on death row, especially as he saw other prisoners taken to their executions. "I had times that I was under so much stress I didn't think I could take any more, so this day is very humbling, and I'm so happy," he said.

BOOKS: One Woman's Journey After Her Sister's Murder

Jeanne Bishop has written a new book about her life and spiritual journey after her sister was murdered in Illinois in 1990. Change of Heart: Justice, Mercy, and Making Peace with My Sister's Killer tells Bishop's personal story of grief, loss, and of her eventual efforts to confront and reconcile with her sister's killer. She also addresses larger issues of capital punishment, life sentences for juvenile offenders, and restorative justice. Former Illinois Governor George Ryan said of the book, "When I commuted the death sentences of everyone on Illinois's death row, I expressed the hope that we could open our hearts and provide something for victims' families other than the hope of revenge. I quoted Abraham Lincoln: 'I have always found that mercy bears richer fruits than strict justice.' Jeanne Bishop's compelling book tells the story of how devotion to her faith took her face-to-face with her sister's killer .... She reminds us of a core truth: that our criminal justice system cannot be just without mercy."

Four Decades of Helping to Free the Innocent

Rob Warden, who is stepping down as the executive director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions, recently spoke about the work of finding and freeing innocent defendants. Warden helped exonerate almost 60 people, including many who had been sentenced to death. He noted that some of the success of the Center was the result of timing: "Part of it was the fortuitous advent of DNA forensic technology, which suddenly showed that many people had been wrongfully convicted. And that, in turn, gave credence to the non-DNA cases where there was persuasive evidence of wrongful convictions. It just changed the momentum." He said that exposing flaws in the justice system has been one of the Center's most important contributions: "[V]irtually nobody believed that people would confess to crimes they hadn't committed. We have been extremely important in exposing the phenomenon of false confessions and the psychological phenomena that lead to it. And we've exposed the fallacies of evidence that were often used to convict people, including misinterpretations of forensic results and the use of so-called jailhouse snitch testimony. People never really took that seriously until we started showing that they were leading to serious miscarriages of justices."

INNOCENCE: The Role of Journalists in Freeing An Innocent Man

The fortuitous investigation of a case by persistent journalists, rather than the workings of the limited appellate process, has led to the exoneration of a number of innocent individuals. Maurice Possley (l.), a former reporter for the Chicago Tribune, recently wrote how he and fellow-journalist Steve Mills (r.) helped free Daniel Taylor (c.) in Illinois, where he had spent more than 20 years in prison. In 2001, the reporters published a story exposing the false and coerced confession that led to Taylor’s conviction, but it would be more than a decade before Taylor was freed. Evidence showed that Taylor was arrested for fighting and was in jail on the night of the murders in question. Eventually, the state discovered documents in the prosecutor’s files that had remained hidden for 19 years indicating police officers were certain Taylor was in jail and could not have committed the crime. Taylor's is among the 1,200 wrongful convictions listed in the National Registry of Exonerations. DPIC’s Innocence List includes 142 death row inmates who have been exonerated and freed. Such investigatory reporting contributed to Illinois's decision to abolish the death penalty in 2011.

STUDIES: Reasons Behind the Abolition of the Death Penalty in Illinois

A new report by Rob Warden (pictured), Executive Director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions, explores the conditions that led to the end of Illinois's death penalty in 2011. Warden says abolition came about because of a series of fortuitous circumstances, but also because of the work of countless attorneys, academics, journalists and activists who took advantage of these developments. The cavalcade of exonerations from death row, including the high-profile release of Anthony Porter, who was freed through the work of journalism students, underscored the flaws in the death penalty. Police abuse and prosecutorial misconduct caused an erosion of public confidence in the death penalty system. Finally, the report of the Capital Punishment Reform Study Committee, finding that the state could have saved $200 million if it ended the death penalty in 2000, greatly impacted the movement for repeal. Warden noted that what happened in Illinois carried over to other states and said he believes, “The future of the movement [to end the death penalty] hinges on how the arguments that carried the day in Illinois, New Jersey, New Mexico, and Connecticut resonate in the thirty-three states where death penalties remain in force but have fallen increasingly into disuse.”  The report is published in the Journal of Law and Inequality.

BOOKS: "Die Free: A True Story of Murder, Betrayal and Miscarried Justice"

A new electronic book by former journalist Peter Rooney offers an in-depth look at the case of Joseph Burrows, who was exonerated from Illinois's death row in 1996. In Die Free: A True Story of Murder, Betrayal and Miscarried Justice, Rooney explains how Burrows was sentenced to death for the murder of William Dulin based on snitch testimony.  He was convicted primarily on the word of Gayle Potter, who recanted her testimony eight years later and admitted to committing the crime herself. According to one review, “Rooney makes it clear his book Die Free isn’t an argument against the death penalty, but simply another example of why such an extreme punishment should be re-evaluated. His points are made clearly and with merit as he details obvious evidence withholding by an over-aggressive district attorney, threats and intimidation of a borderline mentally challenged man, and the old school thoughts of little women versus big, burly men.”   Rooney is a former staff writer for the Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette and is currently the director of public affairs at Amherst College.  Joe Burrows died at age 56 in 2009.  This case, and similar exonerations, led to the abolition of the death penalty in Illinois in 2011. The book is available for electronic download on Amazon.com.

OP-ED: "Abolishing Death Penalty Was Right Choice for State"

Charles Hoffman, an assistant defender in the Office of the Illinois State Appellate Defender, recently wrote an op-ed in the Chicago Sun-Times, marking a year since the death penalty was repealed in Illinois. Hoffman, who has argued more than 30 death penalty cases before the Illinois Supreme Court, says that repealing the death penalty was the right choice for the state: “The rightness of that decision is more clear than ever. Violent crime rates have not climbed. The public is no less safe. And the pursuit of justice has been served, not undermined.” He notes that, in the year since doing away with the death penalty, the murder rate in Chicago remains at a 40-year low, and millions of dollars in Illinois’ Capital Litigation Trust Fund have been designated for services to help those affected by past crimes and help prevent future crimes. Hoffman concludes, “Our system of capital punishment was abolished because it was broken beyond repair, infected with racism and inherently arbitrary and prone to mistakes. There is no doubt we’re better off without the death penalty, both morally and fiscally.” Read full op-ed below.

Illinois Court Reverses Murder Conviction Reminiscent of Death Row Exonerations

On December 15 an Illinois appellate court reversed Juan Rivera’s (pictured) conviction for a murder committed almost 20 years ago. The case is reminiscent of many in Illinois that led to the state's abolition of the death penalty in 2011.  Rivera was convicted and sentenced to life in prison for killing 11-year-old Holly Staker based on a confession after nearly 24 hours of near-constant interrogation.  No physical evidence or witnesses conclusively linked him to the crime, and testing of DNA found on the victim, conducted in 2005, excluded him as the source. The reviewing court stated, “After viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution, we hold that no rational trier of fact could have found the essential elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt. Because the State’s evidence was insufficient to establish guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, we must reverse the conviction of Juan A. Rivera, Jr.”  Rivera’s case was highlighted in a recent New York Times Magazine article that noted there have been more than 250 exonerations through DNA testing, and nearly 76% of the original convictions were based on witness misidentification or flawed forensic evidence.

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