SPRINGFIELD — The co-founder of a group that has cleared a dozen people wrongfully convicted of crimes said Tuesday that the Illinois attorney general should create a "conviction integrity unit" to investigate innocence claims.
Bill Clutter, a private investigator who helped create the Illinois Innocence Project in 2001 and now does similar work from Louisville, Ky., said he proposed the idea in a letter to Attorney General Kwame Raoul.
Illinois has a history of wrongful convictions. Chicago Police Lt. Jon Burge was accused of torturing more than 200 criminal suspects into forced confessions in the 1980s. Former Gov. George Ryan labeled the state's system of capital punishment "haunted by the demon of error" when he halted executions in 2000. By the time Illinois abolished the death penalty in 2011, wrongful death sentences imposed on 20 people had been reversed, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
Conviction integrity units have sprung up recently in major metropolitan jurisdictions such as Dallas, New York and Chicago. But a statewide team in Illinois would be a first nationally.
Clutter said that an independent, statewide team of detectives and lawyers to review convicts' claims of innocence would be more effective than a nonprofit organization with limited resources and limited power. He used the example of Karen Slover of Decatur, whose ex-husband and in-laws are serving 60-year sentences for her 1996 murder. Seeking to clear them, Clutter sought an analysis of an unknown fingerprint in the victim's blood at the crime scene, but was rebuffed.
"With a conviction integrity unit, you have a prosecutor who has the authority, who wants to know the answer to the question, 'Who left that fingerprint in blood at the crime scene?'" Clutter said at a state Capitol news conference. "They'd have a badge and they could work cooperatively with innocence projects within the state to unlock this evidence."
The plan got a cool reception from Raoul, a Democrat who took office in January.
"Ensuring the integrity of a conviction by evaluating new evidence, eyewitness testimony or an appellate court decision is the responsibility of every prosecutor," spokeswoman Annie Thompson said.
Clutter agrees, but he said it's human nature for a prosecutor to be defensive of suspected errors or omissions.
Former Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez created a conviction integrity unit in 2012. Under successor Kim Foxx, it's become an independent unit of the office with publicized policies and standards, spokeswoman Tandra Simonton said. The office receives about 150 applications annually from those convicted of felonies, but many do not meet criteria for review.
Since 2017, just after Foxx took office, 70 convictions have been reversed, Simonton said. Staffing the office are a director, supervisor, four assistant state's attorneys who conduct investigations, one who specializes in forensic work, a part-time forensic scientist and an administrative assistant.
Clearly, only a jurisdiction the size of Cook County can afford such an outlay, said Clutter, who is currently seeking exoneration for Thomas McMillen in the 1989 abduction and murder of Melissa Koontz of Springfield.
Even in Sangamon County, where Springfield is the county seat, "it would be a financial burden for this office to have a truly independent staff of at least one investigator and one attorney to review the claims, and there are not enough claims like this in a county like Sangamon to warrant those resources," Clutter said. "But on a state level, it makes sense to have it housed in the attorney general's office."