A joint investigation by the Better Government Association and the Center on Wrongful Convictions has found that Illinois taxpayers, especially those living in Chicago, have paid a hefty price for the wrongful convictions of innocent people and those painful payments are expected to continue.
Eighty-five cases of wrongful conviction have cost Illinois taxpayers $214 million since 1976, the bulk of the expenses occurring in the last 20 years.
COSTS EXPECTED TO RISE DRAMATICALLY
That wasted expenditure—for incarceration in county jails and state prisons, for Court of Claims compensation (state funds provided to the wrongfully convicted), and civil litigation—will rise dramatically in the next several years, perhaps by as much as 50 percent, as 16 pending civil suits filed by exonerated men are settled or go to trial, the BGA/CWC investigation determined.
The costs of wrongful convictions, however, are more than sums on a spreadsheet. The human cost to the convicted, to their families, and to the community is immense.
The BGA/CWC investigation is the first to examine a large sample of DNA and non-DNA exonerations in an effort to determine the wide array of costs to taxpayers presented by wrongful convictions, isolate the factors that led to those costs, and attempt to catalogue the human toll of those convictions by documenting the havoc committed by the actual perpetrators who escaped prosecution because the wrong man or woman was charged. (See how financial cost was determined, and the methodology of the investigation.)
The investigation revealed that it is far cheaper to incarcerate the innocent than to compensate them afterward. The cost of keeping the 85 in jail and prison for 926 years came to $18.5 million.
Litigation and compensation expenditures afterward were more than ten times that: Court of Claims compensation for the wrongfully convicted cost $8.2 million, $31.7 million has been paid to private attorneys to defend governments and their employees, and $155.9 million has been paid to exonerees in settlements and judgments—a total of $196 million.
Twenty-five of the exonerees in the BGA/CWC investigation did not file for court of claims compensation, and 21 did not file civil suits. Four natives of Mexico, convicted of murder, were pardoned by Gov. Jim Edgar in 1991 only after agreeing that they would not sue. Nine men filed suits and lost; two because they had filed too late.
The two largest awards, both for $15 million, went to James Newsome, who served 15 years of a life sentence for a 1979 homicide, and Juan Johnson, who served 13 years of a 30-year sentence for a 1989 murder.
Four of the top ten awards went to men convicted of a 1978 double murder in Ford Heights. The quartet spent a total of 62 years in prison, a conviction that cost taxpayers $45.2 million in incarceration costs, Court of Claims compensation, and civil litigation fees and awards.
Although taxpayers throughout the state bear the financial burden of incarceration costs and state Court of Claims compensation, the civil litigation expenses are borne by residents of the municipalities where the wrongful arrest and/or prosecution took place.
Because so many of the 85 cases studied originated in Chicago, the bulk of the cost of wrongful convictions in our investigation were borne by city taxpayers.
Even though the incarceration costs for the 85 cases have come to an end, the total cost to taxpayers will escalate dramatically in the next several years because nearly twenty percent of the exonerees have lawsuits pending.
For taxpayers, those pending cases are likely to require sizable payouts.
Ronald Kitchen, Marvin Reeves, and Michael Tillman, for example, filed lawsuits after being released in the last three years, each having served more than 20 years for murders they did not commit. In their civil suits, all three allege they were tortured at the hands of Chicago police officers under the command of Jon Burge.
Burge went to prison in March after being convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice for lying about his knowledge of police torture in the civil suit of Madison Hobley, who served 16 years in prison for the arson-murder of seven people, including his wife and son. That suit was settled in 2008 for $7.5 million. Taxpayers also incurred more than $3 million in fees paid to private attorneys who defended the police and the city.
Since 1990, the city has lost every civil suit based on claims of torture during the Burge regime.
LAWSUITS RAISE TOUGH QUESTIONS, CONCERNS
A fourth suit also names Burge as a defendant, though it does not allege torture. That suit was filed by Alton Logan, who served 26 years for a shotgun murder he didn’t commit. In a recent email, Russell Ainsworth, Logan’s attorney, reported that five detectives deposed in the case have taken the Fifth Amendment, rather than fully answer questions about Logan's arrest. (In 1982, while serving a life sentence for the murders of two Chicago police officers, Andrew Wilson confessed to his attorneys that he was the actual perpetrator of the shotgun murder. They kept this secret until 2007, when Wilson died in prison.)
Herbert Whitlock served
21 years in prison before
charges were dropped in
2008. (Jim Avelis/Tribune Star)
Taxpayers could face another large bill in the cases of exonerees Randy Steidl (sentenced to death, served 17 years) and Herbert Whitlock (sentenced to life, served 21 years). The two were convicted of a 1986 double murder in Paris, Ill. Steidl was exonerated in 2004, and prosecutors dropped charges against Whitlock in 2008.
Their cases are bolstered by the findings of Michale Callahan, the Illinois State Police lieutenant who was assigned to re-investigate the murders in 2000. Callahan, now retired, concluded that some of his colleagues and superiors had buried exculpatory evidence, some of which pointed to other suspects.
According to documents supplied by the Illinois State Police in response to a BGA Freedom of Information Act request, taxpayers have thus far incurred $3.7 million in outside counsel fees for attorneys defending the police in the Steidl and Whitlock civil suits.
An exoneration raises difficult questions. Those questions include:
- When did police or prosecutors know the original theory of the crime was flawed?
- If the indicators that the wrong person had been charged or convicted were present years earlier, what took so long to seek the true culprit?
- Is it now impossible to prosecute because too much time has passed or because misconduct in the original prosecution presents too great an obstacle?
- What officers and prosecutors got this case wrong?
- Do any of those officers have a pattern of producing false confessions?
- Do any of those prosecutors have a pattern of misconduct?
- Once questions arose about the validity of the conviction, why would the state not re-investigate rather than leave a murderer, rapist, or armed robber on the loose?
Probing the answers to those questions can be expensive, according to Santa Clara University School of Law professor Gerald Uelmen, former executive director of the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice. "After the exoneration of a wrongfully convicted person, the police will actually have a disincentive to continue the investigation and identify the actual perpetrator," Uelmen said in a recent email. "Such an investigation could supply persuasive evidence that the initial investigation was negligently performed, increasing the liability for damages that the wrongfully convicted defendant might recover from the department and/or the individual officers."
The BGA/CWC investigation of 85 cases included 16 sexual assault cases in which the victim survived. In one of those cases, a man was convicted. In all of the others, it is now too late to prosecute because the statute of limitations has expired.
Sixty-two of the men and both of the women in the study were charged with a total of 69 homicides. Thirty-seven of those remain unsolved.
John Conroy is a senior investigator with the Better Government Association, and Rob Warden is the executive director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions, Northwestern University School of Law.