Description of original award (Fiscal Year 2021, $300,000)
Encompassing Chicago and its surrounding suburbs, Cook County is the largest county in Illinois. With the largest unified court system in the nation, Cook County could and should be a model for fairness. Instead Cook County bears the ignominious reputation as the world’s “wrongful convictions” capital. In 2020, the National Registry of Exonerations (NRE) reported that Cook County marked its third consecutive year as the leader in wrongful convictions with an exoneration rate six times greater than the national average per capita.
Ninety-three percent of Cook County exonerations indicate police misconduct. Covering withheld evidence, coerced testimony, and witness tampering, police misconduct significantly increases the risk of error for wrongful convictions. Police misconduct also can be a barometer for systemic biases and weaknesses. Black people account for eighty-two percent of Cook County exonerees whose cases involved police misconduct. Constituting sixty-eight percent of cases, homicide is the leading wrongful conviction among Cook County exonerees. Due process for all cannot exist within the presence of racial bias. Public safety is jeopardized when the actual crime perpetrator remains unknown. These are only two of the many injustices that result from wrongful convictions involving police misconduct.
The Law Office of the Cook County Public Defender’s Post-Convictions Initiative will address Cook County’s problem with wrongful convictions stemming from police misconduct in two ways. First, the Post-Convictions Initiative add an Innocence Claims Attorney position to exclusively represent clients with viable innocence claims who were convicted of murder due to police misconduct. Second, the Law Office will analyze project data to understand how to identify and mitigate the systemic factors that leads to wrongful convictions related to police misconduct. Based on the outcomes and information offered by this work, the Post-Convictions Initiative will help to provide relief to people who have been wrongfully convicted, restore trust in the criminal justice system, and increase public safety within Cook County.