iOS app Android app More

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors
David Protess

GET UPDATES FROM David Protess
 

Guilty Until Proven Innocent

Posted: 10/17/11 05:14 PM ET

If you're convicted of a crime you didn't commit, good luck getting compensation for your time behind bars.

Take the case of Eric Caine. Last week, I wrote about Caine, a Chicago man tortured by police under the command of Lt. Jon Burge, wrongfully convicted of a double murder, and finally freed last March after 25 years of prison hell -- only to be legally screwed once again.

The latest travesty: a Cook County judge on October 12th rejected Caine's request for the certificate of innocence necessary to ensure compensation for his unjust imprisonment, a tidy sum of $199,000 that would have helped the penniless Caine start a new life.

Judge Michael McHale's interpretation of the state law governing such certificates was worthy of the Queen of Hearts in Alice's Wonderland. "Petitioner [Caine] must prove his innocence independent of the fact that the State currently has no evidence against him for the crimes for which he was originally tried," McHale opined. Caine's lawyers may ask the judge to stop reading Lewis Carroll and reconsider his decision, or file an appeal.

Unfortunately, Caine is not alone. Meet Nathson Fields.

Fields and another man were charged with a 1984 double homicide on Chicago's South Side. The trial judge, Thomas J. Maloney, didn't care whether Fields and his co-defendant were innocent. But the judge was perfectly willing to find them not guilty -- in exchange for a $10,000 bribe from the co-defendant's lawyer. The lawyer delivered the cash, and things were looking up.

Trouble was, Maloney discovered he was under investigation by the FBI and prudently returned the money. To further cover his tracks, Maloney found Fields & Co. guilty -- and sentenced them to death.

It turned out poorly for everyone. As the two men languished on Death Row, Maloney was convicted of conspiracy to commit extortion and obstruction of justice for fixing cases, and the lawyer was convicted of bribery.

The principals remained locked up until Fields won a new trial. He eventually was released on bond, breathing free air for the first time in 18 years. In 2009, a judge finally acquitted Fields in a bench trial. This time the verdict was legit.

Seeking restitution, Fields requested a certificate of innocence to qualify for the six figures he was owed under state law. The not guilty verdict convinced a Cook Co. judge to approve the certificate, and last year Fields got his check from the state.

But unhappy prosecutors appealed, and on September 30th a three-judge panel ruled that finding reasonable doubt at Field's re-trial wasn't good enough for him to collect. Now Fields will have to prove his true innocence -- or he could be forced to return the money.

Under the circumstances, what are wrongfully convicted prisoners like Eric Caine and Nathson Fields supposed to do? Confined most of their lives for crimes they did not commit, should they be saddled with law enforcement's job -- to track down the actual killers? From eight-by-twelve prison cells?

As for DNA, the magic bullet in undisputed exonerations, expecting to find it at most crime scenes is a television myth. (Sorry, CSI fans.) New alibi evidence is unlikely to emerge decades later. Recanting witnesses? Cook Co. prosecutors are threatening them with perjury for changing their stories.

Judges like Michael McHale in Caine's case, and the appellate justices in Fields' case, say they are simply following the letter of the law that compensates exonerated prisoners. Prove your innocence (or starve).

To some extent, they are right. Illinois lawmakers must amend the statute by guaranteeing funds to prisoners who are found not guilty, or whose convictions are vacated, or whose indictments are dropped. It would be inexcusable not to enact these simple remedies.

On the other hand, judges shouldn't be so quick to pass the buck. The current law recognizes that "... the court, in exercising its discretion... shall, in the interest of justice, give due consideration to difficulties of proof caused by the passage of time, the death or unavailability of witnesses, the destruction of evidence or other factors not caused by such persons or those acting on their behalf." So judges, many of whom were prosecutors (including McHale), are selectively interpreting the law.

The result is that only a handful of certificates of innocence have been approved in Cook Co., while many who should qualify are deterred from filing because of the way our state's law has been written and applied.

Nationally, the situation is worse. Only 27 states compensate innocent prisoners, and many of these states have laws with more hurdles than Illinois'.

What can you do? Plenty. Judges are elected in Illinois. If you don't believe they are acting "in the interest of justice," remember them when you go to the polls. State legislators are also elected. Support those who vote for legislation that is just. For a litmus test, tell your elected representatives about the plight of Eric Caine and Nathson Fields. More broadly, demand passage of the model legislation proposed by The Innocence Project.

Meanwhile, scream about a system that pays torturer Jon Burge his monthly $3,000 police pension while he is in prison, but robs the innocent of the restitution they deserve.