KANKAKEE — “Equal justice under the law.” Those words are chiseled above the front entrance of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C.
The foundation of America’s justice system is innocence until proven guilty. But what happens when someone who is innocent is convicted of a crime? When new evidence surfaces after the innocent party has served or continues to serve time in jail? When someone steps forward with information that exonerates the convicted?
There have been avenues to appeal such cases, but now there is another way to look at a case post-conviction in Kankakee County — the Conviction Integrity Unit.
Funding for the unit was announced in August by Kankakee County State’s Attorney Jim Rowe and then County Board Chairman Andy Wheeler. It’s a division of a prosecutor’s office that works to prevent, identify and remedy false convictions in criminal cases.
“We have to be open to criticism and second looks,” Rowe said earlier this week. “A CIU is like a civilian review board used in law enforcement but only for prosecutors.”
The first CIU in the U.S. was created in 2002 in Santa Clara County, Calif.
Kankakee County is now one of 70 counties in the country with such a unit. That is 2 percent of the 7,000 counties in the U.S.
The University of Penn Law School’s Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice at the University of Pennsylvania Law School deals with conviction integrity units.
“Every week I’ll get calls from DAs or innocence organizations around the country,” said Marissa Bluestine, the Quattrone Center’s assistant director, in a Nov. 12, 2019, Washington Post story about the growing interest in CIUs.
“It’s not just a flash-in-the-pan kind of thing. And it’s not just the ‘progressive’ DAs. Some have been in office for decades.”
On the front line
Kankakee County is the fourth county in the state to establish a CIU, joining Cook, Lake and McHenry counties.
Recently, the local CIU’s website at k3sao.com/ciu went live. Dan Johnson, an attorney and retired Chicago firefighter, leads the unit.
Johnson will serve both separate and apart from the criminal prosecutions division, Rowe said.
Johnson had worked for the county’s public defender’s office prior to switching over to the prosecution side. Johnson said he believes the job was handmade for him.
“It uses all the experiences I have in life in some form or fashion,” Johnson said. “Also, I know it is easier to effect change from within. As a public defender, it sometimes felt as if I was just throwing rocks at the windows from the outside.”
Johnson dreamed of being on the front lines of effecting change in criminal law.
“It is a newly developed area in most states attorney’s offices throughout the country, we are inventing how this area can best help in the criminal law legal field to the ends of justice,” he said. “The Kankakee state’s attorney office is leading the country by establishing this unit. This act embodies my own pursuit and ideals of ‘Justice for all,’ which is shown by implementing change.”
How it starts
The most important factor in applying is that the case was tried in Kankakee County and the defendant must still be alive.
The person filing the claim must assert actual innocence, which means that there must be conclusive evidence available showing that the defendant was wrongfully convicted.
Second, the claim of actual innocence must be based on evidence that was not considered by the trier of fact during the proceedings that led to conviction. Both of these elements usually must be present before the CIU opens its investigation into a case.
CIU does not investigate claims that newly discovered evidence supports an affirmative defense, such as consent, self-defense or lack of intent. Similarly, the CIU will not consider claims that a decision to prosecute was the product of over-charging or that a sentence was unfairly harsh.
Johnson said a person making a claim has to fill out an application that among other things asks for the names of witnesses, those who can corroborate the person’s innocence.
“This is more than just a phone call from a person who said they are innocent,” Johnson said. “You need to have more than allegations.”
There must be conclusive evidence showing the defendant was wrongly convicted. The claim also must be based on evidence that was not considered by the trier of the fact during the proceedings that led to conviction.
Once an application gains approval, Johnson said it begins a process that could take months or even a year, depending on the complexity of the case.
“We research a case from the first report filed, the investigation, trial transcripts all the way, to the documents involved in an appeal,” Johnson said.
Helping in the process and research will be an investigator.
After cases are researched, Johnson said a review board will make the decision on whether or not a case moves forward to overturn the verdict and exonerate the defendant.
In addition to reviewing claims of innocence he also aims to proactively work with all sectors of the criminal justice system — law enforcement, prosecutors, public defenders, the private bar and the judiciary — to provide training and ensure best practices and policies are implemented to avoid wrongful convictions.
“This unit is a necessary part in the process. You have investigations, preliminary hearings, grand jury, a jury trial or bench trial and appeals,” Rowe said. “We care if we get it right.”