Lake County State’s Attorney Revs Up Wrongful Convictions Reforms
|Lake County's chief prosecutor / |
Image courtesy of Sun-Times
A framed copy of Rosa Parks' police booking photo hangs on a wall in Michael Nerheim's office. The image of the late civil rights icon and activist, who was arrested in 1955 after refusing to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama bus, reminds the new Lake County State's Attorney of his mission.
"It actually was the inspiration of my 8-year-old son, who chose Rosa Parks for a school project," Nerheim said. "When I look at that picture, I see justice and courage."
Nerheim, 39, pledged to bring those qualities to office when he was elected in November as Lake County's chief prosecutor. In his first bid for public office, Nerheim, a Republican, defeated Democratic opponent Chris Kennedy, a private attorney from Libertyville.
Nerheim, a former assistant state's attorney, who was later a private defense lawyer, ran his campaign as a reformer, promising to improve the reputation and record of an office tarnished by faulty prosecutions.
Michael Waller, 65, who retired in December after 22 years as Lake County State's Attorney, faced criticism for a series of convictions in which DNA evidence refuted earlier guilty verdicts.
In four high-profile cases involving murder or rape, Waller continued to insist the suspects were guilty even after DNA samples proved their innocence, critics claimed. The high-profile cases of Juan Rivera, Jerry Hobbs, James Edwards and Bennie Starks eventually were overturned, but only after the four men spent years behind bars.
In replacing Waller, Nerheim vowed to make changes that would improve the integrity and transparency of the state's attorney's office. Nerheim worked for seven years as an assistant state's attorney under Waller. But Nerheim said there was no animosity when the pair met daily during the transition.
"It was not awkward. Mike chose to retire and I think he knew it was time for some changes," Nerheim said. "Besides, I felt it was important to make changes and I can't worry about hurting people's feelings."
Following a detailed review, I am reorganizing the State's Attorney's Office to make it more effective and more... fb.me/2gQ7TYhLR— Mike Nerheim (@MikeNerheim) March 16, 2013
Once he took office in December, Nerheim received high marks from supporters and critics alike for acting quickly to enact reforms, including reorganizing the office, enhancing staff training, and for creating a case review panel and a citizens' advisory board.
But now over six months into the job, Nerheim, whose annual salary is $166,507, acknowledges that his honeymoon period is just about over.
"I'm not going to be able to play the 'good guy' card forever," Nerheim said.
Indeed, some observers already are growing anxious to see results from the reforms Nerheim has put in place.
STACKS OF CASES
Consider the case review panel, a volunteer assemblage of attorneys, former prosecutors and judges, charged with examining cases where the prosecution has been called into question.
The independent panel, formed in February, has met several times and is currently reviewing three cases: a murder, a sexual assault and a battery case. Some observers wonder whether the panel is taking on enough cases and handling them with expediency.
"This unit has been there since shortly after he took office, and we haven't seen any results yet," said Rob Warden, executive director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions, Northwestern University's School of Law. "I hate to use the cliché, but the proof is in the pudding…he's said all the right things, but these cases can be, and should be investigated with dispatch."
Eyeing a stack of large storage boxes brimming with legal files – some under consideration for review – Nerheim said that he and the review panel would not rush to judgment.
"This process takes time. Some of these cases are 20 years old and have 6-7 boxes of files. It is a long process," Nerheim said.
The case review is slow and deliberate because Nerheim is the gatekeeper, studying the legal files before turning them over to the panel, he said.
"Anyone can bring a case to my attention: a defendant's attorney, a defendant in prison, a defendant's mother. I review each case before deciding which ones are put before the panel. It's time consuming, but it's important," Nerheim said.
The process also takes time because the case review panel is made up of volunteers, Nerheim said.
"These are experienced legal professionals who have volunteered their time and spend a considerable amount of time reviewing these cases," he said.
One member of the panel is Ennedy D. Rivera, a Waukegan lawyer specializing in immigration and civil law. Rivera said the review process does take time, but she sees the value in having an independent panel taking a look at questionable cases.
"Having a fresh look at things can always be beneficial," said Rivera, who interned in the Lake County State's Attorney's Office while in law school. "In handling a case, I think there is a lot of potential to overlook smaller details. A second set of eyes is helpful."
Nerheim also has assembled a citizens' advisory board to serve as a conduit with the community in Lake County, located in northeastern Illinois along Lake Michigan and bordering southern Wisconsin. It has a population of around 703,000, according to the 2010 census data.
The four-member board includes a pastor, a retired journalist, publisher and a community activist.
Given the mistrust of the state's attorney's office because of the highly publicized wrongful convictions, Nerheim felt it important to improve relations with the community.
"One of the top priorities is building the public's trust. The citizen's panel will give voices to people who haven't always had a voice," Nerheim said.
Police brutality and racial profiling are among the issues of concern among Lake County residents, said community activist Paula Carballido, a member of the citizen's advisory board.
|Rosa Parks’ police booking photo|
"People are asking for a forum to get the state's attorney to hear complaints and come up with solutions. They also want the office to be more transparent," Carballido said.
Carballido has personal experience with the Lake County justice system. Her brother, Juan Carballido, 26, is serving 35 years in prison for his role in the 2004 gang-related shooting death of Lake County teenager.
The case is under appeal.
Nerheim has also taken his focus internally, trying to determine whether the state's attorney's office can be run more effectively.
When he first took office, he conducted one-on-one interviews with each employee. Having completed five internships in the state's attorney's office while in law school, and having been an assistant state's attorney there for almost a decade, Nerheim felt he knew most aspects of the office.
"If you work here, I've done your job," he told employees.
Yet after interviewing all 144 employees in the office, Nerheim didn't fire anyone, which leaves him open to criticism.
Jed Stone, a private defense attorney in Waukegan, was surprised Nerheim didn't fire some lead prosecutors. Stone represented defendants in pair of high-profile felony cases in Lake County in which DNA tests proved the wrong man was prosecuted.
In 1990, Alejandro Dominguez, then 16, of Waukegan, was convicted of rape based on the victim's testimony and forensic evidence that couldn't positively exclude him from committing the crime. Specifically, semen recovered from the victim couldn't entirely exclude Dominguez, according to court records.
Dominguez served four years in jail, and in 2001, he paid for DNA testing that eliminated him as a suspect in the rape. A federal jury subsequently awarded Dominguez $9 million for the violation of his civil rights.
Stone also was the attorney for Bennie Starks, 53, who spent 20 years in jail for the rape and beating of a 69-year-old woman in Waukegan. He was freed in January, six years after DNA test proved he did not commit the rape. But Lake County prosecutors wouldn't drop the separate battery charge against Starks, keeping him in jail, according to Stone and published media reports.
On his first day in office, Nerheim dismissed that battery charge.
"The problem with the Mike Waller administration wasn't just a problem with the top administrator," said Stone, who supported Nerheim's opponent, Kennedy, in the state's attorney's race.
Waller disputes claims that his office did not respond quickly to review cases where DNA evidence was involved.
"I was state's attorney for 22 years, and I handled 90,000 felony cases, including 340 murders. Out of that, four cases were subject to criticism. Compelling evidence led to charges or convictions in each case. And there were videotaped confessions," he said.
"Despite all that, I told Mike [Nerheim] that after being in office for 22 years, there were probably changes that needed to be made. I think he's doing a good job. I think change was good." Waller added.
"Mike is someone who is concerned about doing justice," Stone said. "He is working very hard to improve the office and you can tell the attitude of the state's attorney's has improved."
While there were no firings, Nerheim did reorganize the duties of the 74 prosecutors in the state's attorney's office, creating new felony divisions and placing prosecutors on cases with which they showed most interest.
"The interviews allowed me to figure out the strengths of each assistant state's attorney and what type of cases they were interested in," Nerheim said.
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The new felony divisions are: narcotics/gangs; general felony; cyber/white collar; specialty courts; specialized victims and investigations, and a training division to instruct and mentor state's attorneys.
"It makes sense to create specialized felony divisions so you can have the most fair and effective prosecution," Nerheim said.
Nerheim also established a pre- and post-trial review process for the most serious felony cases, such as murder and sexual assault. Nerheim and two supervisors review important felony cases one month before trial, and plan to review those cases again once they have been adjudicated.
Nerheim also hopes to fulfill a campaign promise by creating a second chance program, in which first-time, non-violent offenders are given the opportunity to do public service and go to school rather than serving jail time.
Some outside observers are impressed with what Nerheim has been able to accomplish in his first months in office.
"These measures are spot on. He's doing exactly what you'd hope a chief prosecutor would do," said Marc D. Falkoff, a professor at the Northern Illinois University College of Law. Falkoff's recent legal work includes representing 17 prisoners being held in Guantanamo Bay on terrorism charges.
"We're living in an age where confidence is waning in the criminal justice system," Falkoff continued. "He [Nerheim] should be commended for taking seriously what DNA tests tell you and moving forward on cases where the evidence is questionable."
Despite the early accolades, Nerheim brushes off any suggestions that he has aspirations for higher office, either within Lake County government or at the state level.
"My focus is on doing a good job here," he said. "This is a job I've always wanted to do. I'm living a dream."
John Slania is a freelance writer, who writes for the BGA's policy team. Any questions or comments regarding this story can be sent to Robert Reed, Director of Programming and Investigations at: firstname.lastname@example.org.