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Thursday, May 19, 2005 12:39 pm

The Prosecution Complex

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Rolando Cruz (left) was tried time after time despite ample evidence he did not murder Jeanine Nicario in 1983. Here he is with then-Gov. George Ryan in 2003 after Ryan granted clemency to four death row inmates.
PHOTO BY ALEX GARCIA/CHICAGO TRIBUNE/KRT

With the growing number of exonerations in recent years, it is obvious that Illinois has seen more than its share of individuals who have been wrongfully convicted and given long prison sentences or the death penalty by our courts. When those convictions and sentences were handed down, law enforcement and prosecutors celebrated the virtues of the criminal-justice system.

It is now becoming more common to read about the angry reaction of those same prosecutors and law-enforcement officials to evidence that the initial convictions they obtained may be wrong. When these prosecutors continue to pursue individuals despite such new evidence, it can result in what author Thomas Frisbie calls the “Prosecution Complex,” which he describes as “a mind-set that spurs some prosecutors, police officers, and judges across the country to pursue convictions at all costs in high-profile cases while settling for light sentences in lesser crimes that don’t generate publicity. . . . The Prosecution Complex leads police officers to tell a witness whom to pick out of a lineup. It encourages assistant state’s attorneys to make deals with dubious snitches or suppress information that would help a defendant. It assures expert witnesses that it’s all right to fudge test results. It pushes judges to ignore the law if adhering to it would help a defendant too much.” In those instances, prosecutors continue with no apparent constraints or accountability to pursue the defendant despite evidence to the contrary.

It is this mindset that was at work in the case of Rolando Cruz, who was tried time after time for the murder of young Jeanine Nicarico in DuPage County in 1983. The retrials occurred despite ample evidence that Cruz did not commit the crime and after a convicted murderer, Brian Dugan, confessed to the crime. Through the efforts of many, including local attorney Michael Metnick and investigator Bill Clutter, Cruz’s conviction was overturned and he was fully exonerated by former Gov. George Ryan.

It is this mindset that is characterizing the case of Julie Rea-Harper in Lawrenceville. Rea-Harper was convicted of killing her 10-year old son, Joel, in 1997 despite the absence of any physical evidence tying her to the crime. Shortly after Rea-Harper began serving a 65-year sentence, students at the University of Illinois at Springfield, working with Clutter and the Downstate Innocence Project, helped unearth ample evidence of her innocence, including a confession to Joel’s murder by serial killer Tommy Lynn Sells, who is on death row in Texas. When Rea-Harper’s conviction was overturned by the courts on procedural grounds in May 2004, it was assumed that the new evidence, particularly Sell’s confession, would be sufficient for prosecutors to take another look at the case. It was assumed that prosecutors would at least attempt to get DNA results of critical evidence. Instead — in a classical example of tunnel vision and the Prosecution Complex — prosecutors immediately went into court to pursue a new indictment and another trial for Rea-Harper.

It is this mindset that leads prosecutors to continue to resist efforts to release Herb Whitlock, who was convicted along with Randy Steidl in the killing of Dyke and Karen Rhoads in 1986 in Paris. The federal courts overturned Steidl’s conviction last year because of a lack of evidence to sustain the initial court judgment. When faced with the decision to retry him on what the federal court found was suspect evidence, prosecutors were forced to back off from pursuing a new trial. However, when faced with a challenge to the continuing incarceration of Whitlock, and even though the same evidence was used to convict both men, prosecutors chose to resist his request for either release or a retrial.

Recently another court challenge, directly tied to the Steidl and Whitlock cases, took place. Illinois State Police Lt. Michale Callahan filed a lawsuit against his superiors for moving him out of an investigative role and into a patrol position after he requested the authority to pursue leads that could have proved Steidl and Whitlock’s innocence. Callahan believed that a prominent Edgar County businessman, who may have had ties to the mob and who contributed substantial funds to Ryan and other state politicians, might be linked to the crimes. Callahan sued his superiors for retaliatory action and in federal court in Champaign won an important jury decision for both actual and punitive damages against two of his ISP supervisors.

This brings us to the actions of ISP Director Larry Trent. Given the court decision, Illinois citizens would hope that the director would express some concern that an injustice was done to Callahan and that disciplinary action would be taken against any officers under his command who engage in such behavior. Instead, Trent chose to condemn the verdict and attack Callahan. In an e-mail he sent to his staff, he even asked them all to wear their official uniforms on a designated day in a show of support for those officers who had just been found liable for misconduct by the jury.

Illinois has enough experience and knowledge with innocence cases to know that something must be done to hold these prosecutors and law-enforcement officers accountable. A few years ago the Illinois Supreme Court implemented a new rule that it is the duty of a prosecutor to pursue justice and not just victory. The time has come to hold all representatives of the state who participate in the legal system to this standard. If Trent cannot accept this principle, perhaps it is time for him to look for a new profession.

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