News from this weekend comes from St. Clair County, Illinois.
This southwestern county in Illinois was not a place on my radar screen, for anything. It is now.
George Pawlaczyk and Beth Hundsdorfer report in the Belleville News-Democrat (Illinois) a new Conviction Integrity unit begun in 2013 as a check on wrongful prosecutions and wrongful convictions has already exonerated a full nine people.
"[N]ine defendants accused in eight cases have been freed in prosecutions that involved murder, armed robbery, predatory criminal sexual assault, reckless homicide, possession of a weapon by a felon and felony retail theft," note Pawlaczyk and Hundsdorfer.
Nine more innocents exonerated from a county roughly half as populous as Dane County Wisconsin in some two years.
As Wisconsin (and the nation) comes to grips with the fact police routinely lie, coerce innocents and cook reports, prosecutors' prime objective remains to achieve statistics of convictions over truth. Reforms in district attorney's offices are as common as a 50-degree January day in Wisconsin, and the question arises what is to be done.
The criminal justice sensation chronicling the moral and legal disgrace in Manitowoc County Wisconsin, Making of Murderer, has provoked a reaction among law enforcement jurists.
This reaction from Wisconsin law enforcement, I'm told, is one of smug arrogance, inappropriate from the prosecutorial offices holding so much power over the liberty of American citizens in a Constitutional democracy.
Then again most jurists don't become prosecutors to serve the citizenry, and the district attorney's office is not a fountain of soul-searching intellectuals who stay up nights pondering what went wrong when another innocent is exonerated after losing decades of his or her life.
This isn't grade school, folks: Let's acclaim a truism, the district attorney's office (or the state's attorney's office) is typically a stepping stone to enhance a legal career; maybe a lucrative position as a partner in as a defense attorney in a mid-sized firm, (unless your were drummed out of office like the fetid, ethics-free Ken Kratz who runs a small firm exiled up north in Superior, Wisconsin) or maybe a cushy, tax payer-financed judgeship awaits.
Dane County's Penny Brummer
In Dane County, readers are familiar with the wrongful conviction of Penny Brummer, as the Innocence Project, journalists, jurists, scholars and advocates know well this woman is innocent and they cannot, to this point, get Ms. Brummer out of prison, much less exonerate her. No evidence plus no motive equals no justice for Penny Brummer, but hey, she is a lesbian and served in the military right out of high school. By the way, please consider signing this new petition RE getting Ms. Brummer a new trial.
The reason Brummer remains in prison, to be candid, is the obstinance of the district attorney's office, and the absence of an independent county Conviction Integrity Unit.
Considering the analytical resources in Dane County and the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Frank J. Remington Center, there is every citizen resource in place to draft a mission statement, policies and procedures, criteria and scope of an independent Conviction Integrity Unit as a check on wrongful prosecutions and convictions in Dane County such as Penny Brummer, and Forest Shomberg, and Ralph Armstrong, and Anthony Hicks, and Audrey Edmunds, perhaps you notice a pattern forming: These are human beings. And this is just a partial list in Dane County where being exonerated is very difficult and takes a lot of luck along with the dedication of the Innocence Project, for example.
Most of the growing number of Conviction Integrity units across America are part of the district attorney's office and their efficacy is under debate.
But in St. Clair County, Illinois, State's Attorney Brendan Kelly's Conviction Integrity unit works before conviction and a case's inception into Conviction Integrity protocol is begun at the request of defense attorneys to the state's attorney.
No reason Dane County cannot establish a Conviction Integrity Unit, independent from the district attorney's office, and staff it with retired jurists, journalists, students and other scholars.
Ask Brummer, Shomberg, Armstrong, Hicks, and Edmunds (and an untold number other citizens) if this might be a good idea.
To end on a positive note, $16.8 Million was awarded by the State of Connecticut to four wrongfully convicted men last week. Good thing those guys don't live in Manitowoc County, or Dane County.
"The quest for a conviction cannot outweigh the Constitution rights of an accused," wrote Commissioner J. Paul Vance, Jr., Claims Commissioner of the State of Connecticut.
Dare to dream.