Lake County prosecutors snare grant for DNA testing to reduce wrongful convictions

The Lake County state's attorney's office has landed a federal grant for DNA testing to reduce the number of wrongful convictions.

“It's an important tool in looking at some of our old cases,” said Lake County State's Attorney Eric Rinehart.

The Bureau of Justice Assistance awarded a Conviction Integrity Unit grant of $91,730 to the Illinois Innocence Project, which is forwarding funds to Lake County in a collaborative effort.

Lake County has had a history of wrongful convictions. Rinehart said nine well-known cases have cost taxing bodies about $54 million in settlements.

The grant will cover 55% of salary and benefits for a Conviction Integrity Unit director. Kevin Malia, who serves as chief of the Rehabilitative Service Unit in Rinehart's office, will assume that role.

The grant also will cover 40% of the salary of a paralegal and computer equipment for the position.

“The paralegal work can't be understated,” Rinehart said. “The access to DNA testing will allow us to find if someone is wrongfully incarcerated with no impact to the taxpayers.”

Rinehart said DNA testing can be used in cases of individuals currently in custody and can help determine whether there were past trends, such as coerced confessions by detectives.

The grant will allow prosecutors to use private labs, if needed, to process DNA samples more quickly than state facilities. A full DNA test can cost about $1,500, Rinehart said.

Prosectors sometimes are dealing with a fraction of a sample mixed in with other DNA, which requires more work to extract a viable sample, officials said.

Developing new protocols will be an important part of the work, Rinehart said.

“We'll take the lessons from these cases and take them not only to prosecutors, but police,” he said.

Standards to determine cases to review are in the works.

“We look forward to announcing in February our protocols for reviewing cases after we have formal approval from the (Lake) County Board and additional information from the Department of Justice regarding access to funds,” Rinehart said.

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