Lake County wrongful-conviction review panel sworn in
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Lake County State's Attorney Mike Nerheim didn't waste any time convening a volunteer panel that'll review cases involving possible wrongful convictions.
Nerheim went to his fourth-floor office in the Lake County building Thursday afternoon with the case review board's six members shortly after they were sworn in as special assistant state's attorneys by Chief Judge Fred Foreman.
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Nerheim said the special prosecutor designation provides legal protection for the attorneys and retired judges on the advisory panel, but they'll operate independently from his staff.
Part of the work Nerheim said he wanted the case review board to perform on its first day was a general look at the issue of wrongful convictions as a whole.
"All of the cases we've dealt with in Lake County have to do with DNA," Nerheim said. "I don't want them to limit this to DNA. I want them to look at any issue involving wrongful convictions — whether it's DNA, whether it's identification, whether it's a confession issue — and really help come up with protocols so we can put them in place and work with police to help ensure this doesn't happen again."
In recent years, the prosecutor's office was marred by four high-profile cases overturned because of evidence of wrongful prosecutions and false confessions.
Most notable was the case of Juan Rivera, who had been freed after 20 years in prison for the 1992 rape and murder of 11-year-old Holly Staker of Waukegan. Rivera was convicted three times, but DNA testing failed to connect him to the crime.
Elected as state's attorney in November, Nerheim replaced Michael Waller, who retired after spending an unprecedented 22 years as Lake County's top law-enforcement official.
He announced the formation of the case review board and a citizens advisory panel the day he took office.
Nerheim said he did not immediately know the initial cases that will go to the review board. Before the case review panel and the citizens advisory board were sworn in by Foreman, Nerheim said he no longer wants Lake County mentioned during discussions about wrongful convictions or prosecutions.
"It's my top priority to restore the reputation of the state's attorney's office," he said.
Among the six case review panel members is Robert Baizer of Highland Park, an attorney who specializes in personal injury, medical malpractice and wrongful-death cases. He's also a former Lake County assistant state's attorney.
Baizer said he volunteered because he's part of the Lake County court system and didn't like the negative publicity that came from the controversial cases.
"I'm hopeful there won't be a lot of things that happened that would result in issues regarding wrongful convictions," he said.
Four members of the citizens advisory board who were sworn in will serve as a liaison between the community and prosecutor's office regarding issues related to crime and public safety.
Nerheim said the group, which includes a retired newspaper reporter and a pastor, will bring a "nonlawyer" view to the office.
Nerheim said he modeled the advisory panels after a similar, statewide program in North Carolina.
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