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Chicago Ought to Change the Standard Ending to That Old Wrongful Conviction Story

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A short driveway leads from California Avenue to Division 5 of the Cook County Jail. It is the point of entry for hundreds who daily visit friends or family members confined behind the razor wire. It is a point of departure too. Each day dozens of men pass through the Jail gate and back to the streets: their bond posted, their sentences served, the charges dropped.

On a rare warm October night a few days ago a different scene unfolded at this place. With Northwestern Center on Wrongful Convictions attorney Judy Royal at his elbow, Jacques Rivera walked briskly down that driveway, out of the shadows and into the warm glow of television lights, the embraces of his children and his mother and the cheers of supporters. He was finally free after 21 years of imprisonment for a murder he did not commit. It was like a dream, his mother said as her son hugged her to his chest, a dream come true.

We have seen this movie before. Like a romance novel or a cowboy story, we know how the plot will unfold: the brutal crime; the seemingly airtight case against the innocent suspect; his conviction; the lonely years in which his protestations of innocence from a prison cell fall on deaf ears; the arrival, finally, of heroic, committed lawyers who take up his case; and then, that magical walk to freedom after the false case has fallen apart. The TV producers -- like the rest of us -- can't get enough of this drama with its great visuals.

The famed University of Chicago criminologist Norval Morris once said that an innocent man in prison is as rare as a pigeon in the park; they aren't everywhere, but if you look, you will see them. With Rivera, the Chicago Police Department has so far been implicated in 63 known wrongful convictions since 1989, according to Northwestern University's Center on Wrongful Convictions.

These actually aren't feel-good stories. Behind each wrongful conviction lie broken lives and shattered dreams. Each one represents a serious and substantial failure of law enforcement: the wrong person locked up; the actual perpetrator at large. Each is expensive, imposing millions in measurable costs and incalculable intangible harm on the City and the criminal justice system. And every one of the cases raises this screaming question: "How could this have happened?"

Here in Chicago, there's a final chapter we can count on too. At the Police Department, heads will not roll and questions will not be asked. At City Hall, a commission will not be appointed and an inquiry will not be conducted. The detectives in charge of the investigation that went awry will not be punished. Every person in a position to demand answers and accountability will be otherwise occupied. Nothing will change. That's exactly how it's unfolded here in each of the 62 Chicago exonerations that preceded Jacques Rivera. And that's what we must expect in the aftermath of his exoneration too.

Rivera's false conviction rested solely on the testimony of a 12-year-old eyewitness to the murder. The case fell apart when the eyewitness gave a heartfelt recantation under oath at a court hearing last summer. Among other things, he testified that he'd told police before charges were filed against Rivera that he'd identified the wrong person. That inconvenient fact was never revealed to Rivera and his criminal trial attorney.

So the Rivera case leaves us with several specific and important questions that Chicago officials won't be pondering: What procedures should police follow when dealing with a child witness in the investigation of a serious crime? How could the police reports in a murder investigation have failed to note the sole eyewitness's recantation of his identification? Could future, similar miscarriages of justice be prevented through reform of the procedures for eyewitness identifications in criminal investigations like those recently implemented in New Jersey? It's too bad these questions won't be asked. Some focus on these and similar issues might help prevent the future miscarriages of justice that are otherwise certain to unfold.

Now if only the City administration and the Chicago Police would write a surprise ending to this standard epilogue.