-Just recently, this blog covered Bill Clutter’s crusade to get Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul to consider creating an independent statewide conviction integrity unit that would review possible cases of wrongful convictions. Clutter is best known for his co-founding of the Illinois Innocence project. The justifications for this legislation are laid out in that blog if you would wish to review them. Illinois has had a specifically dark history of wrongful convictions leading to lengthy sentences and sometimes even the death penalty for innocent human beings. In lots of cases that were carried out before Illinois lawmakers passed a bill heavily restricting the use of jailhouse snitches by prosecutors, many men and women were convicted on those jailhouse testimonies. And as covered in last weeks blog, jailhouse testimony is notoriously unreliable. Jailhouse testimony is the leading cause nationally for wrongful convictions, however it is not the only way innocent human beings find themselves behind bars.
Now, as Katie Smith of the Northwestern Herald reports, formerly wrongfully convicted persons are weighing in on Clutter’s proposed idea. One of those men is McHenry County resident Gary Gauger. In April of 1993, Ruth and Morrie Gauger were murdered and robbed by biker outlaws James Schneider and Randall Miller. However, the police had another suspect in mind: The victims son Gary Gauger himself. Despite little evidence or motive, the police pinned Gauger as their man early on and any evidence found thereafter would be manipulated to support their theory. A classic case of confirmation bias. Gary was tried and convicted for the murder of his parents and sentenced to lethal injection. As he said regarding the police’s confirmation bias; “The police get a theory on what happened and they don’t seem to care if it doesn’t match the facts.” Finally 3.5 years later with the help of Northwestern University Law Professor Lawrence Marshall, ( founder of the Center for Wrongful Convictions) was Gary able to successfully appeal his conviction and get it overturned in 1996. The police would then find more evidence pointing to the real killers, Schneider and Miller. By that point, Gary had spent nine months on death row. It would seem a statewide integrity unit filled with objective participants from diverse sections of government would help out in cases like Gauger’s, where the police had already made up their minds the second they reviewed the case and didn’t have the proper funding to look into his conviction anyway.
Gauger’s case is not the only one of its kind in McHenry County the last few decades. As Smith notes, “Gauger’s case is one of two in McHenry County in which perjury or false accusations, official misconduct, and false confessions have led to convictions and subsequent exonerations since 1989, according to the National Registry of Exonerations.” The other McHenry man wrongfully convicted and imprisoned was Mario Casciaro, who in March of 2013 was convicted of the murder of Johnsburg teenager Brian Carrick. After being sentenced to 26 years in Menard Correctional Center, he was released 22 years into his sentence after the Second District Appellate Court overturned his conviction. Casciaro himself believes that McHenry county in its current form is not impartial, progressive, or big enough to create a unit they themselves could run locally. He believes a statewide integrity unit such as the one Clutter proposed, would be an important step. Though he didn’t shut off the idea that McHenry one day could create its own independent integrity unit. “McHenry County specifically is probably a little bit too small right now, but in the future, if there’s continued growth in the population, I imagine there should be an independent conviction investigation unit.”
As the article and this blog noted earlier, the Illinois justice system has a dark history of stealing away the lives of innocent people for crimes they didn’t commit. A number of innocent people have been executed unjustly and there’s no amending those mistakes. From Smith, “Illinois has a history of wrongful convictions. Former Gov. George Ryan labeled the state’s system of capital punishment “haunted by the demon of error” when he halted executions in 2000. By the time Illinois abolished the Death Penalty in 2011, wrongful death sentences imposed on 20 people had been reversed, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.” Some systems have been set in place that may provide precedent for the type of system Clutter is calling for. In 2012, Former States Attorney General Anita Alvarez assembled a Cook County based Integrity unit that reviewed applications from convicted felons. Although many did not meet the criteria for further review, the unit still overturned seventy convictions, unit spokeswomen Tandra Simonton explained.
Further, as the article notes, a similar system to Alvarez’s has been implemented in Lake County. That unit helped exonerate Jason Strong and overturned his conviction which jailed him for the killing of Carpentersville resident Mary Kate Sunderlin. Strong was understandably shocked at how all this had happened to him, and that his life would have possibly been destroyed for a crime he didn’t commit. This has naturally helped shape his views on integrity units and his gratefulness to the one that helped release him. “For a case to be considered by Lake County’s panel, the defendant’s claim must contain new evidence that was not known at the time of trial, previously untested evidence, or some other affirmation of innocence. Strong is a proponent for the conviction integrity panel that helped exonerate him, and attributes its success to objective thinking within the Lake County State’s Attorney’s Office.” Strong went on to say “I admire that, and I think that if you have that kind of quality in a prosecutor then you’re going to get a better integrity unit.”
All three of the wrongfully convicted men interviewed for Smith’s article believe integrity units are key in helping stop the epidemic of wrongly convicted persons. However while two of the three come from the same county, the other comes from a different geographical and socioeconomic context. Jason Strong comes from Lake County which seems to have a decently funded integrity unit. But Gary Gauger and Mario Casciaro argue that their home McHenry county doesn’t have that same type of funding, or integrity for that matter. “Gauger’s experience, however, has left him with doubts about whether McHenry County could handle a unit of its own.” ‘How do you get politics out of McHenry County?’ Gauger said. ‘It’s difficult.’ The article also notes that, “Casciaro has also been critical of how McHenry County prosecutors handled his case, going as far as to call State’s Attorney Patrick Kenneally “delusional.”
It would seem wise to listen to what these men have to say, as they have been through the rigors of the injustice of our justice system. Integrity units are important. Are local ones like the systems in Cook and Lake County enough? I don’t think so, as that idea doesn’t transfer over to counties with significantly lesser populations and lesser fundings. State based integrity units filled with objective quality well picked representatives seems like the most logical and ethical option.
by Jake Morask