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posted: 6/24/2014 5:01 AM

Editorial: Weighing freedom, justice issues in DNA case

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The Daily Herald Editorial Board

Lake County State's Attorney Mike Nerheim says he'll immediately act to free Marvin Williford, who is serving an 80-year prison sentence in the 2000 beating death of a North Chicago man during a robbery, if DNA evidence proves Williford was wrongly convicted.

Nerheim's cautious sincerity is the right approach.

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There is certainly cause for concern about the validity of Williford's conviction, particularly with the recent discovery that the 2x4 used to bludgeon Delwin Foxworth contains the DNA of the unknown person who also killed 11-year-old Holly Staker in Waukegan in 1992.

It's important that Nerheim continue to work closely with defense attorneys and other investigators to determine the value of this new evidence as soon as possible. If Williford is innocent -- he has long maintained he is, and he has never confessed to the grisly crime -- every day he serves in prison is a day too long.

But certainly justice and respect for the jury and evidence that convicted Williford demands that due diligence also be used in determining the relationship of the 2x4 DNA to Williford's conviction.

The possibility that new DNA evidence could identify another wrongful conviction is a sensitive matter everywhere, but especially in Lake County.

Since 2010, four high-profile felony cases have been overturned because of evidence of wrongful prosecutions and false confessions. The mistakes occurred before Nerheim's tenure, but cast a shadow over the state's attorney's office that he has committed to addressing.

It's particularly noteworthy that DNA evidence played a critical role in each case.

• Juan Rivera was freed after spending 20 years in prison for the rape and murder of Staker in 1992.

• Jerry Hobbs spent five years in Lake County jail after police charged him with killing his 8-year-old daughter and her friend in 2005.

• In May 2012, James Edwards was cleared of the 1994 slaying of a Waukegan business owner. He remains in prison on a separate conviction.

• Bennie Starks was released in May 2012 after spending 20 years in prison for the 1986 rape of a 69-year-old woman in a Waukegan ravine.

The fallout has been significant: innocent men have spent decades behind bars, lawsuits have been filed that could potentially lead to multimillion-dollar payouts, and hard work has been needed to rebuild trust in the office.

While all of these cases occurred on the watch of the previous state's attorney, that matters little when another man's freedom may hang in the balance.

The wrongful convictions were a key issue in Nerheim's campaign when he ran for office in 2012. On his first day on the job, he created a review panel to address such cases. He knows what's at stake here.

For now, it's all about getting to the truth in the Foxworth case and swiftly ensuring that justice will be done for Williford -- whatever that might be.

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