With wrongful prosecutions of four men in separate cases making headlines, both candidates for Lake County state's attorney say reforms in the office are necessary.
Democrat Chris Kennedy, an attorney from Libertyville, and Republican Mike Nerheim, a criminal defense attorney from Gurnee, agree the approach to high-profile cases needs to change but differ on how best that should be done. Kennedy wants in-house review, while Nerheim advocates outside experts.
Both are former Lake County prosecutors looking to replace Republican Michael Waller, who is retiring after 22 years in office. The candidates outlined their positions in Daily Herald questionnaires and in interviews.
Kennedy said wrongful convictions have been "uniquely embarrassing, expensive and dangerous" for Lake County.
"The approach to high-profile cases involving alleged wrongful convictions, especially concerning DNA evidence, is the most urgent issue in this race," according to Kennedy.
He said he would create a "Conviction Integrity Unit" to ensure prosecutors are pursuing and convicting the actual perpetrators of violent crime. Kennedy suggested the unit be composed of a prosecutor without any ties to the original convictions and a senior investigator.
The unit would investigate and make recommendations on certain challenged convictions and prosecute cold cases where evidence suggested different or additional perpetrators, according to Kennedy. It also would oversee ongoing cases, investigations and training to make sure evidence is property collected, tested and evaluated at the earliest opportunity.
"My unit would look at cases with fresh eyes, and if there's something to test, we're going to stop fighting testing," he said.
In addition, the integrity unit would use the advice of an outside advisory board composed of experts, such as legal scholars and former prosecutors, on "best practices." They would not make determinations or review specific cases because of potential conflicts and other issues.
Nerheim said restoring trust in the state's attorney office is his top issue.
He said he would appoint a "Case Review Panel" to review old cases and convictions, to develop protocols for the prosecution of cases with forensic evidence including DNA, and to work with police to prevent false confessions from going forward. Wrongful convictions, he said, harm innocent people, leave the perpetrator on the street and can cost millions in lawsuits.
Nerheim has said the Case Review Panel would be independent of the state's attorneys office -- a key difference from Kennedy's idea -- and bring a fresh perspective. It would include members of the legal community and other leaders from outside Lake County, he said.
"I have already lined up an incredible pool of talent to take on this important role, at no additional cost to taxpayers," he said.
An outside panel is needed to be unbiased, he said.
"Everybody knows each other," he said of county prosecutors. "To have an in-house review I don't think would be effective."
Kennedy countered there is no legal authority to hand off cases to someone who's not an attorney in the office.
"You can't outsource these decisions. You can't have a panel from outside the office," he said.
Regarding evidence, the state's attorney's office in June introduced an "evidence integrity protocol" to expedite forensic testing, investigation and collection of physical evidence. "I do like it," Nerheim said. "It's a good start."
While protocols can ensure issues regarding the cases are regularly checked, he said a better solution would be to look at cases with "an eye toward vertical prosecution," meaning the same attorneys are involved throughout, Nerheim said.
"We have to make sure we can prove these cases to the jury, and if we can't, we shouldn't be charging them," he said.
Kennedy said the new evidence integrity protocol was overdue, adding it has been a matter of the "fox in the hen house."
"In none of these cases was the validity of DNA evidence ever in question," he said. "It was a matter of will our prosecutors accept it."