On Thursday, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled that Stanley Wrice, an Illinois inmate who claims that officers beat him with a flashlight and rubber hose until he confessed to a rape he did not commit, could have a new hearing to present evidence of torture. Now, after widespread criticism about her handling of wrongful conviction cases, Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez has announced the formation of a six-person team that will exclusively investigate allegations of torture and police misconduct.
“In my view, my job is not just about racking up convictions, it’s about always seeking justice, even if that measure of justice means that we must acknowledge mistakes of the past,” Alvarez said Thursday at a City Club of Chicago luncheon, according to the Chicago Sun-Times.
Chicago Innocence Project President and HuffPost blogger David Protess told the Sun-Times that he was pleased with Alvarez's decision to create a Conviction Integrity Unit. Protess and Alvarez entered into a very public battle last year, when prosecutors won the right to examine emails from student journalists who were investigating another wrongful conviction case. Protess repeatedly accused the state's attorney of blocking progress in such cases.
As the Chicago Tribune reported Friday, Protess was not the only critic of Alvarez's handling of wrongful conviction allegations:
Last year, a group of influential Chicago lawyers and politicians filed a “friend-of-the-court” brief on behalf of seven men convicted of murder as teens in which they expressed concern by what they contended was Alvarez's penchant to fight new trials even when clear evidence of innocence existed.
On Thursday, Alvarez rejected such accusations, and said her office has been willing to work with innocence projects to “thoroughly investigate claims of wrongful convictions to make sure that those in prison are there correctly,” the Tribune reports.
Prosecutors, however, have tried multiple times to shut down requests for retrials by inmates who say they were tortured. In the case of Stanley Wrice, prosecutors did not dispute his torture claims, but said they had enough evidence to convict him even without a coerced confession.
In asking the high court to reverse the appellate court's ruling, prosecutors argued that the confession was the legal equivalent of "harmless error." As the Associated Press reported, justices strongly disagreed.
"Use of a defendant's physically coerced confession as substantive evidence of his guilt is never harmless error," the opinion by Justice Mary Jane Theis reads. Five other justices concurred, while a seventh justice didn't participate in the case.
Since 2008, Alvarez's office has dropped charges against more than a dozen men who were allegedly victims of police torture, coerced confessions or were cleared by DNA evidence. She told the City Club Thursday that she hopes the new team she has created will be able to re-evaluate such cases.
"Based on what we've been dealing with in these last couple of years and also because of DNA and the fact that 30 years ago we could not do what we do today, we should be able to work up these cases, and look at these cases and re-evaluate them more efficiently," Alvarez said, according to WBEZ.