The decision by Cook County, Illinois’s State Attorney Anita Alvarez to set aside the convictions of two men Tuesday is underscored by her continued record and the fact that Illinois, like many states, has unaddressed wrongful conviction issues that are far from over.

Does Alvarez’s handling of the cases of Carl Chatman and Latherial Boyd signal a shift in her approach to cases of wrongful convictions or is it a move for temporary political favor to distract from her record on the issue?

Alvarez has a reputation as a prosecutor who dismisses convictions only when she has no other choice and tries to slow the process of innocence claims as much as humanly possible.  In some of her cases, even when DNA evidence points to the real perpetrator or when other compelling evidence almost undoubtedly proves the innocence of a prisoner, Alvarez refuses to vacate convictions and makes no moves to apprehend the real perpetrator when known.

“Above all else, our work as prosecutors is about seeking justice, even if that measure of justice means we must acknowledge failures of the past,” Alvarez said Tuesday. “Justice was certainly delayed for Mr. Boyd and for Mr. Chatman, but we’re hopeful that, with today’s action, it will not be denied.”

Alvarez launched a Conviction Integrity Unit in 2012 to try to find wrongful convictions, but she has only proceeded to vacate five cases brought to light by the CIU.  Boyd’s attorney, Kathleen Zellner, who worked for years to overturn his conviction for a 1990 murder, praised Alvarez for her “courage and dedication to doing the right thing” and not fighting the efforts to free Boyd.  Zellner said the CIU conducted an exhaustive review of the case, including interviewing witnesses and re-evaluating evidence.  The investigators came to the conclusion that Boyd was telling the truth when he said he was innocent.  Alvarez’s critics cheered her move to release Chatman and Boyd, but pointed out Alvarez isn’t completely committed to justice.

Alvarez has devoted very few prosecutors to the CIU.  Only four prosecutors and two investigators are assigned to the unit and those prosecutors must also handle new criminal cases while trying to investigate wrongful convictions in old cases.   She only dismisses convictions when there is no possible way for her to win and she simply does that to avoid negative publicity.

“We’re hopeful that it represents a real change in the way they analyze wrongful convictions,” said attorney Jon Loevy, whose firm has won the freedom of several state prisoners. “But there are too many cases where the innocence is obvious and they refuse to acknowledge it.”

David Erickson, a former top aide to Alvarez’s predecessor, Dick Devine, and a retired Illinois Appellate Court justice said that he believes that big city prosecutor’s are trying to evolve and handle innocence claims correctly.  He went on to say that it is unrealistic for defense attorneys to expect prosecutors to believe a claim of innocence and that reinvestigating cases is time-consuming and expensive.

“It’s not a matter of moving fast or slow. It’s a matter of getting these cases right,” said Erickson, who teaches at the Chicago-Kent College of Law at the Illinois Institute of Technology. “I can guarantee you this: The first time that it’s a mistake and the person she releases reoffends, she’ll catch hell.”  Alluding to the fact that if prosecutors aren’t resistant they’ll release a guilty person.  Said Hugh Mundy, an associate professor at John Marshall Law School and a former federal public defender:

“History has taught us that prosecutors are extraordinarily reluctant to revisit cases…”

Chatman, 58, spent 11 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.  He was sentenced to 30 years for raping a county employee at the Daley Center.  He falsely confessed and the alleged victim identified him as her attacker.  Many have long questioned the case.  Chatman’s lawyers had, from the beginning, said the woman was fabricating her attack to get money from the county in a lawsuit.  In 1979, almost two decades before this accusation, she had alleged she was raped while working at another office and sued them.  Alvarez said that the CIU concluded the victim “lacks credibility.”  Officials are looking into withdrawing the warrant for the man wanted in the 1979 attack.  Edward Szymczak fled to Poland before trial, but has always maintained his innocence.

Boyd, 47, was wrongfully convicted in the murder of Michael Fleming and the wounding of Ricky Warner.  He spent 23 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.  Nine witnesses didn’t identify Boyd; only Warner did even though he initially said he couldn’t identify him.  Police never disclosed to defense attorneys and the jury never heard that one witness explicitly ruled out Boyd.  Boyd had an alibi for that night.  He was at his sister’s house, eating pizza and watching the Bulls game. A veteran Cook County Sheriff’s deputy was also at the home and testified on Boyd’s behalf.

“It’s pretty clear from what we’ve seen,” said Alvarez, “that there wasn’t enough to bring charges against this man.”

But charges were brought a long time ago.  Boyd was convicted despite all the evidence, even at trial, that he was innocent and sentenced to 82 years in prison.  Rob Warden, executive director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University’s law school, has long said that Alvarez, like many prosecutors, takes too long to realize that an innocent person is suffering in prison, even when presented with unequivocal evidence.

“We’re delighted, of course, to see people exonerated…But she’s also not nearly as fast as she could be,” Warden said. “Often these cases aren’t that hard to figure out. Once you figure them out, you can move far more expeditiously…”

Lawyers at the Northwestern University center had been arguing for years for the release of Daniel Taylor, who spent more than twenty years in prison for a 1992 double murder he didn’t commit.  Records clearly showed that he was in a Chicago police jail when the crime occurred.  It wasn’t enough for Alvarez and it took until this year for her to drop the case.

Alvarez also fought the claims of two groups of men who were teens when they were accused of murders.  In both cases, DNA testing pointed to other suspects.  Despite the fact that DNA is a rare and valuable tool for investigators as well as innocence projects, it wasn’t enough for Alvarez.  The men were eventually exonerated.

Sally Daly, the spokeswoman for Alvarez’s office, says that the CIU represents a “shift in philosophy” and that Alvarez is making good on her commitment to be more aggressive in investigating the veracity of wrongful convictions.  She says that is especially true when the inmate has mental health issues, like Chatman, who falsely confessed, or when cases are constructed around one single piece of evidence, like Boyd’s.  Daly admitted that finding witnesses in Boyd’s case was extremely difficult because most had moved or died.  He spent so long in prison.  Prosecutors also interviewed Boyd three times and pored over the entire trial transcript to find any flaws.  Chatman’s case required minimal effort compared to Boyd’s.

“It’s extremely labor-intensive and, unfortunately, we don’t have an immense amount of resources to invest…” Daly said, “We’re doing something this office has never ventured into…”

Alvarez appeared in a 2012 60 Minutes piece entitled Chicago:  The False Confession Capital, in which she stretches to defend police conduct in two cases where confessions were thrown out as false and judges gave the men certificates of innocence.  Despite the court’s actions and the lack of evidence, Alvarez said, “I don’t know whether he committed the crime or not. There are still unanswered questions in both of these cases that I couldn’t sit here and tell you today that they’re all guilty or they’re all innocent.”

In the case where there was DNA evidence that matched a convicted rapist, Alvarez didn’t yield.  Instead, she suggested that the rapist was simply partaking in necrophilia after the convicted men killed the girl, “It’s possible. We have seen cases like that.”  She completely rejects the damning evidence of innocence.

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