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Doubly Victimizing the Wrongfully Convicted

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A few days ago, I wrote about a new report that documented the staggering scope of wrongful convictions: over 2,000 felony exonerations nationally in the last 23 years, an average of more than one case a week of officially acknowledged mistakes. Today, I will introduce you to a Chicago man who endured the hell of unjust imprisonment -- and call on you to do something simple that will make a difference for him and others who share his plight.

Jacques Rivera was legally screwed. Twice. Both times by the Cook County criminal justice system, which leads the country in exonerations.

In 1989, Rivera was tried for murder based on a single eyewitness -- a 12-year-old boy. The child told police he'd seen the shooter before, a guy who played baseball at a neighborhood recreation center. He picked Rivera's photo from several shown by police.

But Rivera didn't play ball there, had an alibi for the night of the murder and steadfastly professed his innocence. There were no other eyewitnesses and the victim lived long enough to identify the shooter as someone other than Rivera. Physical evidence? Nothing that implicated Rivera.

Yet Rivera was convicted on the kid's testimony and sentenced to 80 years of maximum security. It was the kind of case that was head-scratching even to the justice system's true believers.

Twenty-one years later, the kid, now 34, told investigators from the Center on Wrongful Convictions that he had falsely identified Rivera. The recantation eventually helped Rivera win a new trial, despite vigorous opposition by State's Attorney Anita Alvarez's prosecutors. Rivera was freed last year when those prosecutors, realizing their already pathetic case had entirely evaporated, finally dropped the charges.

But, to paraphrase the immortal Janis Joplin, freedom for Rivera was just another word for nothing left to lose. Not lost love, as in the song, but financial destitution. In the months since Rivera's release, prosecutors have succeeded in screwing him out of the $199,150 he is seeking under Illinois law for prison time wrongfully served.

"I'm not really free yet," Rivera told me on Memorial Day. "At 47, I live with my mother to make ends meet and I can't afford a vehicle to get to a job or the events I've been asked to speak at." Rivera said he wants to contribute to society as "an activist against gangs and drugs," but "prosecutors are doing everything they can to prevent me from living my life."

How is this possible? Unfortunately, Illinois law has a large loophole: Restitution isn't assured unless a freed prisoner first proves his innocence. That's right. Even if the charges have been dropped, he must convince the county's presiding judge that he didn't do the crime. That makes exonerees "guilty until proven innocent," as I wrote in previous posts about victims like Rivera.

In Rivera's case, Cook County prosecutors are still calling him a killer despite having no case against him. They are claiming the eyewitness's original testimony was true and his recantation was a lie, so Rivera better come up with solid evidence or forget about restitution.

"It's outrageous," Rivera said. "Prosecutors should have to prove their innocence after what they did to me, not the other way around."

But help is on the way. State Sen. Donne Trotter (D., Chicago) has sponsored legislation that would go a long way to closing the loophole. Senate Bill 2781 boldly acknowledges that the wrongfully convicted have been "frustrated in seeking legal redress." Among other provisions, the bill states that "the presumption of legal innocence is restored" when the charges have been dropped, the conviction vacated or the prisoner found not guilty at a new trial. it also removes a hurdle that made it difficult for innocent prisoners who falsely confessed to get financial compensation after their release.

I asked Sen. Trotter about the need for legislative reform. "When there is a blatant miscarriage of justice there is an expectation of swift restitution... without any unnecessary jumping through hoops," he said. Calling our laws "the best," he added that "we as citizens expect them to be just. The least complicated route to restitution is a right, not a privilege. SB2781 codifies that right."

Swift passage is expected, right? Not so fast. "State attorneys have expressed concerns with the bill," said Ronald Holmes, deputy press secretary to Senate President John Cullerton (D., Chicago). Holmes didn't elaborate, but it's clear that prosecutors don't want to further acknowledge their mistakes and, on top of it, be blamed for the ensuing cost to taxpayers. So, their lobbying group may stop SB2781 in its tracks.

Here's where you come in. The reform bill was assigned to the Criminal Law Committee just last week. Click here and you'll see its nine members and links to their contact information. Take a moment and call, fax or email your views about SB2781. Express how you feel about what we owe the exonerated. If you don't, the only voices heard by legislators will come from the paid lobbyists for those who locked up the innocents in the first place.

And, if you can spare another minute, contact Sen. Trotter and tell him you're grateful for his willingness to help the least powerful among us. Men like Jacques Rivera.