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updated: 5/20/2012 7:04 AM

After wrongful prosecutions, experts offer ideas to repair trust in Lake County

How Lake County can repair trust in justice system

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  • Jorge Torrez

      Jorge Torrez

  • Hezekiah D. Whitfield

      Hezekiah D. Whitfield

 
 

Wrongful prosecutions of four men in separate high-profile murder or rape cases in Lake County have been likened by some attorneys to a disease outbreak requiring immediate attention.

Some in the legal profession say prosecutors, defense lawyers and judges should join forces to prevent more wrongful prosecutions.

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They point to cases involving Jerry Hobbs III, James Edwards, Juan Rivera and Bennie Starks as the reason.

Waukegan defense attorney Jed Stone said doctors would work quickly to treat a disease outbreak, and it should be no different in the criminal justice system.

"If we heard news there was an epidemic, we all ought to be working to find a cause of the epidemic and a cure for the epidemic," Stone said.

Attorneys and legal activists are offering suggestions on how to correct the problem, including additional training for prosecutors and working to get judges to allow expert testimony on false confessions. They also say the November state's attorney election is a chance to restore integrity to the office.

Lake County Assistant State's Attorney Stephen Scheller, chief of the office's criminal division, isn't disputing the problem. Changes are needed, he said, and some are under way.

Stone said he believes more wrongful prosecutions will be found if other cases are examined. He said he was contacted last week by a man who's been in prison for 10 years on a Lake County conviction and plans to visit him because he believes there is credibility to the inmate's claims of police and prosecutor witness testimony manipulation in his case.

High-profile fallout

Prosecutors have been under fire since 2010, when it became publicly known the Hobbs case was unraveling amid questions over DNA evidence found at the murder scene.

Other cases also would implode.

Hobbs spent about five years in Lake County jail after he was charged with killing his 8-year-old daughter, Laura, and her 9-year-old friend Krystal Tobias in a Zion park in 2005. Hobbs, who confessed to police and hours later denied any involvement in the girls' deaths, was freed from jail in August 2010.

Roughly a year and a half later, Rivera was freed from prison in January after a state appeals court overturned his third conviction for the 1992 slaying of Holly Staker in Waukegan.

Appellate court justices said "no rational trier of fact" could convict him beyond a reasonable doubt. They issued the ruling after DNA testing failed to connect the 39-year-old Rivera to the crime but indicated another possible killer. Rivera also had confessed to investigators.

And, just last week, two men were charged in murder cases that focused on other suspects until doubts were raised by DNA evidence. On the same day, Lake County prosecutors formally dropped sexual assault charges that sent a man to prison for 20 years.

Jorge Torrez, 23, who's incarcerated in Virginia, is now charged with 18 counts of first-degree murder in the Laura Hobbs and Krystal Tobias deaths. Authorities said Torrez's DNA linked him to the crime scene.

In the other murder case, Edwards was imprisoned in 1996 after he was convicted of slaying Waukegan business owner Fred Reckling, 71. Edwards was convicted of beating Reckling to death, based on a signed confession.

While prosecutors are expected to drop the charges against Edwards at a hearing in Lake County circuit court May 25, he'll remain in prison for other convictions.

Authorities said DNA evidence led them to Hezekiah D. Whitfield, 42, of Chicago, who's been charged with six counts of first-degree murder in the beating death of Recking in his Grand Appliance store in 1994.

Starks, 52, of Chicago, was exonerated by DNA evidence in the January 1986 rape of a 69-year-old woman in a Waukegan ravine. Stone has been representing Starks.

Possible solutions

Change is afoot in the state's attorney's office, Scheller said, with plans for creation of an evidence review unit that will screen cases to expedite forensic testing.

The office also is forming a conviction integrity unit that will look at past cases and actively seek DNA testing to ensure the guilt of convicts, he said.

In-house training sessions also are planned for subjects including evidence, ethics and case review, Scheller said.

The Hobbs, Tobias and Reckling cases will be used as examples "of what was done and not done so we learn from them," Scheller said in an email.

Scheller replaced Mike Mermel as head of the criminal division in February. Mermel announced his retirement in December 2011 following the publication of a New York Times article about the Hobbs and Rivera prosecutions in which he was quoted disputing the meaning of DNA evidence that seemed to contradict the men's confessions.

Scheller declined to comment about Mermel and his handling of the cases. As for the prosecutions themselves, he wouldn't speculate on what the office could have done differently.

He did point out the four recent wrongful-prosecution cases represent a very small percentage of the cases the office has prosecuted.

"While we think one is too many, they are not an accurate representation of the work this office has done," Scheller said.

IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law Professor Richard Kling is calling for Illinois judges to start allowing expert testimony about false confessions in trials. Rivera, Hobbs and Edwards gave confessions that were contradicted by DNA.

He said that experts hired by the defense could answer questions on the witness stand about police interrogations and potentially cast doubt on the validity of confessions. Proponents say what turned out to be false confessions by Rivera, Hobbs and Edwards support their point.

"All you're looking for is justice," Kling said.

New leader

Legal activist Rob Warden, a former journalist who for years has worked to free prisoners through Northwestern University's Center on Wrongful Convictions, said faith in the office won't be restored until a new state's attorney is elected in Lake County.

Michael Waller, the state's attorney since 1990, isn't seeking re-election this year. Democrat Chris Kennedy and Republican Mike Nerheim will face off for the post in the November election.

"The prosecutor's job is to seek justice, not to get convictions," Warden said. "But that's been the mentality in the Lake County state's attorney's office."

Kennedy has proposed a five-point "Blueprint for Justice" to restore the public's trust in the system. The top point is the creation of a conviction integrity unit within the state's attorney's office that would address concerns of wrongful convictions and oversee training to prevent such cases from arising again.

Nerheim also favors the creation of a group that would review accusations of wrongful convictions. He's proposed a case review panel that would be independent of the state's attorney's office and would consist of lawyers or community leaders from outside Lake County -- "a complete, fresh set of eyes," in his words.

Judges played a role

Warden also said Lake County judges can't go blameless for the wrongful convictions through actions such as not striking questionable testimony from police officers or other witnesses who didn't appear to be telling the truth in some of the cases.

Stone said most of the judges are former prosecutors without experience as defense attorneys.

"Judges must, in order to be successful -- must -- have a background that is wider than having been at the public trough," Stone said.

Kathleen Zellner, a Naperville attorney who represents Hobbs and Edwards in federal lawsuits against Lake County authorities, said she hopes prosecutors will be quicker to realize a need to drop charges when presented with evidence excluding a suspect. She said DNA should carry much more weight than a suspect's confession.

"I really think there will come a time where confessions are not viewed persuasively at all," said Zellner, known for her work in wrongful-conviction cases.

Scheller voiced concern about false confessions, too.

Along with other attorneys interviewed for this story, he advocated videotaping police interrogations as a preventive effort.

Scheller cited a case from about two years ago in which a man was charged with murder in Waukegan and confessed to the crime.

Scheller said he questioned the confession after viewing a recording of it, and after a new investigation authorities determined the suspect was in a different town at the time of the killing. Another person has since been charged, he said.

"Twenty years ago, false confessions were a startling hypothesis," Scheller said. "They are now common knowledge."

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