Wrongful Conviction Costs Keep Climbing
The high cost of wrongful convictions in Illinois continues to climb with tens of millions more being added to the $214 million in taxpayer-backed settlements and costs previously disclosed in a mid-2011 Better Government Association investigation.
Since then, Illinois government agencies, primarily the city of Chicago, agreed to pay nearly $39 million more to settle lawsuits with people wrongfully convicted of murder and other serious crimes.
That means around $253 million has been paid in settlements and related costs since 1989, considered when the DNA-exoneration era in Illinois began, and legal experts predict the payouts from at least 10 pending cases could mean a total of $300 million or more, according to the BGA, which co-authored the 2011 investigation with the Center on Wrongful Convictions (CWC), Northwestern University School of Law.
Of the near $39 million, slightly less than half, around $18 million, stems from four settlements with victims who were allegedly tortured by former Chicago police commander Jon Burge or his underlings. Burge is now serving four and a half years in prison for perjury and obstruction of justice related to the alleged abuse of suspects. Several Burge related settlements are pending.
Since the BGA/CWC’s initial investigation, however, reform efforts designed to curtail wrongful conviction abuses have gained traction. In the Illinois General Assembly, for example, State Senator Kwame Raoul (D-Chicago) recently introduced a bill calling on police to videotape interrogations of essentially all major violent crime suspects. Presently, only homicide investigations are taped.
"For law enforcement it can actually be a tool that could, in the end, save money," said Sen. Raoul, who is optimistic state lawmakers will approve his legislation perhaps during the current session.
The cost of wrongful convictions continues to escalate, piling on top of the $214 million the BGA/CWC reported in its June 2011 investigation. Of that amount, $156 million was for legal settlements, $31.5 million was paid to lawyers; $18.5 million spent to incarcerate and $8 million for related Court of Claims costs.
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Taxpayers may also be on the hook for $25 million a federal jury in January 2012 awarded to Thaddeus Jimenez, who at age 13 was arrested and wrongfully convicted for a 1993 fatal shooting, according to his attorneys. Jimenez was exonerated in 2009 after 16 years in prison; the jury award is being appealed and a decision is expected this spring.
Government entities also continued to pay millions of dollars to private law firms involved in wrongful conviction cases.
Flint Taylor, founding partner of People’s Law Office, which specializes in wrongful conviction defenses, calculated that in 2012, the city of Chicago paid more than $3.6 million in legal costs for pending and recently resolved wrongful conviction lawsuits, and more than $750,000 for its defense in the Jimenez case.
In the last 18 months, the Illinois Court of Claims has also promised to pay 13 wrongfully convicted people a total of $2.5 million, according to court documents obtained under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act. Six more cases are currently pending before Court of Claims judges which could result in additional payments.
Among the most notable and largest settlements made since the BGA/CWC investigation:
- In November 2011, the Illinois State Police settled with Gordon "Randy" Steidl for $2.5 million over his wrongful conviction for a 1986 double murder in Paris, Ill. Steidl spent 17 years in prison and 12 on Death Row, before his double murder conviction was vacated in 2003.
- On March 27, the city of Paris, Edgar County and their insurers agreed to pay Steidl $3.5 million to settle his lawsuit against Paris, former Edgar County state’s attorney Michael McFatridge, and two former Paris police officers.
- In June 2012, the city of Woodridge settled with Marcus Lyons for $5 million for his wrongful conviction in a 1987 sexual assault.
- In April 2012, the city of Chicago settled for $3.6 million with Robert Wilson, wrongfully convicted of attempted murder by slashing with a box cutter a woman waiting at a Chicago bus stop.
- In October 2012, Chicago settled with Maurice Patterson for $3.4 million, after the Illinois State Police had also agreed to pay him $800,000 to settle a wrongful conviction for a 2002 murder.
- This month, exonerated murder suspect Jerry Hobbs settled his legal claims against Zion police and Lake County prosecutors for $2.2 million. Hobbs is seeking further compensation from other law enforcement authorities that sent him to jail for five years.
Since the BGA/CWC’s 2011 report, four lawsuits have been settled with people who were allegedly tortured by former Chicago police commander Jon Burge or his underlings.
In January the city of Chicago settled for $10.2 million with Alton Logan, who spent 26 years in prison after being wrongfully convicted of murdering a fast food restaurant security guard during an armed robbery.
David Fauntleroy was awarded $1.8 million, Harold Hill was awarded $1.2 million and Michael Tillman was awarded $5.3 million for wrongful murder convictions after allegedly being tortured by Burge or his officers.
Lawsuits involving Burge are among at least 10 still pending against the city of Chicago.
"They settled a few cases but they continue to pay millions of dollars to private lawyers to defend cases," said Taylor.
Meanwhile, five men who were wrongfully convicted of the 1991 rape and murder of a 14-year-old in downstate Dixmoor sued the Illinois State Police. That action, filed in October, is pending.
Rob Warden, executive director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions, Northwestern University School of Law and a co-author of the 2011 BGA report, said prosecutors should investigate potential wrongful convictions more quickly for the benefit of the wrongfully convicted people and taxpayers.
He cited the case of Andre Davis, released from downstate Tamms super-maximum security prison in July 2012 after 30 years behind bars. DNA evidence exonerated Davis in the murder of a three-year-old girl.
"We need to reduce the time lapse between the discovery of exculpatory evidence that leads to exoneration and achieving the exoneration" said Warden. "With Andre Davis, it was eight years…If Andre brings a civil suit and is ultimately successful…those eight years are going to end up costing the state a lot of money."
The BGA/CWC 2011 study identified police misconduct or error as contributing to two thirds of wrongful convictions and faulty witness identifications contributing to almost half of wrongful convictions. With the Center on Wrongful Convictions, it traced 85 exonerated cases from 1989 through 2010.
In addition to costing taxpayers $214 million, those 85 wrongful convictions meant innocent men and women were imprisoned for a total of 926 years, the BGA/CWC investigation found.
The BGA recommended a number of reforms that should address these issues, and the General Assembly has been discussing some such measures, including Senator Raoul’s bill that would mandate interrogations be videotaped for all Class 1 and Class X felonies, essentially all violent crimes.
"For guys who really are confessing, you’ve got it on tape – you’re going to get a lot more pleas." said Raoul. "At the same time those who would otherwise have been coerced into confessing, you’re going to cut some of that out."
Hearings and discussions about other identification reforms will continue in the state legislature, he added.
Regionally, Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez recently launched a new six-person "convictions integrity unit" to review questionable convictions.
The state’s attorney’s office has come under fire for its handling of cases including the Dixmoor murder case. Alvarez stated on a recent CBS’ 60 Minutes broadcast that her office found no evidence of police or prosecutorial misconduct in that case.
Alvarez’s office did not respond to the BGA’s repeated requests for comment.