Description of original award (Fiscal Year 2022, $494,216)
The Illinois Innocence Project (IIP), founded at the University of Illinois Springfield in 2001, seeks funding to use DNA testing to resolve postconviction cases emerging from IIP’s collaboration with the Lake County State’s Attorney’s Office (LCSAO) to establish a Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU). IIP’s proposed “Justice Collaborative” project will achieve this goal through the following objectives: 1) review LCSAO CIU postconviction cases in partnership with the CIU to assess whether DNA testing could address questions of innocence; 2) develop reinvestigation plans that include DNA testing strategies; and 3) conduct DNA testing. Excluding Cook County, where Chicago is located, Lake County has the highest per capita rate of wrongful convictions among Illinois’ most populous counties. The County, well known for ignoring science and refusing to admit wrongs, has paid out $54 million in civil settlements to the 10 known individuals proven – 7 with DNA testing – to be wrongfully convicted. Under the Justice Collaborative project, IIP and the CIU will work together to review 35-40 backlogged Lake County postconviction claims of innocence to identify cases with potential to be resolved by DNA testing using up-to-date forensic testing methodologies. An estimated 50% of those cases pre-date 2000, with some going back to the 1980s, the same decade in which DNA testing was “discovered.” For identified cases, IIP and the CIU will establish “Joint Review Plans” detailing agreed-upon reinvestigation actions; identify, locate and test DNA evidence; agree on and make case recommendations to the State’s Attorney; and, through tracking and analysis of results, identify problematic issues/trends in Lake County postconviction DNA cases. The Justice Collaborative builds on IIP’s 2019 “Collaboration with Prosecutor Offices” Wrongful Conviction grant award, through which IIP has identified and gained experience in effective methods of collaboration and established a statewide reputation as an organization capable of building productive relationships with prosecutors. A collaboration between an innocence organization and a prosecutor’s office, entities often at odds in their pursuits of justice, is revolutionary and groundbreaking. It is IIP’s intent that the Justice Collaborative will serve as a model for how innocence organizations and CIUs can – and should – partner to correct mistakes made by the criminal justice system.