Why Illinois Has So Many Wrongful Convictions—and How to Fight Them


More men have been exonerated in the ongoing Ronald Watts corruption scandal. We spoke with a wrongful-convictions attorney who’s working the case.



Last week, 18 men who were wrongfully convicted of crimes linked to corrupt former Chicago police Sgt. Ronald Watts had their cases overturned. Joshua Tepfer represented 12 of them.

Joshua Tepfer

As part of a reporting project about how incarcerated people fight their convictions, City Bureau spoke with Tepfer, an attorney with the Exoneration Project – a legal service organization that reinvestigates cases of individuals who claim that they were wrongfully convicted.


Since 1989, 2,240 people in America have been wrongly convicted of crimes and then later exonerated and cleared of all wrongdoing due to new evidence of innocence. Illinois ranks No. 3 on the list, with 225 exonerations in the past nearly 30 years. That’s according to the National Registry of Exonerations, which counted 20 men and one woman in Illinois who were exonerated in 2017 from the crimes of murder, sexual assault, drug possession and robbery.


Earlier this year, Tepfer sat down with City Bureau to discuss racial bias and police misconduct in the criminal justice system, as well as how individuals and their families cope with the emotional and material impact of wrongful convictions.


Information from this interview, as well as dozens of other interviews and extensive research, is compiled into a zine: “After the Trial: A Legal Toolkit for Prisoners and Their Loved Ones.” If you would like a free copy, please go to www.citybureau.org/afterthetrial.


According to the National Registry of Exonerations, Illinois consistently ranks in the top two or three states for exonerations each year. Can you explain what led to this?

Sometimes the criminal justice system gets it wrong. Illinois has a lot of wrongful convictions. Chicago’s got a lot of wrongful convictions.


One of the reasons is we have one of the most active post-conviction litigation bars. I work at the Exoneration Project. There’s another organization called The Center on Wrongful Convictions, where I used to work. There’s another organization called the Illinois Innocence Project, that’s downstate. That’s pretty rare for a state to have this many groups working on these types of issues.


The second reason, of course, is the horrible history of police misconduct that we have in Chicago. It’s led to an extraordinary amount of wrongful convictions.


Have you worked on any cases involving police misconduct?

What I’ve been involved in more recently is the Sergeant Ronald Watts scandal. This was a sergeant in the Chicago Police Department who ran a housing unit at the Ida B. Wells Homes and was basically facilitating his own drug trade from 2000 to about 2012 until he was federally indicted. It involved maybe 15 officers who worked under him. We’ve had something like 30 convictions overturned in the last couple of years based on that, and that’s just gonna be the beginning. [Ed. Note: After last week’s ruling, that number is now 42.]


African Americans make up 13 percent of the American population but are 47 percent of the exonerations. What leads to racial disparities?

Racial bias infringes on every aspect [of the criminal justice system] because the system is made up of individual actors – prosecutors, judges, police officers, defense attorneys. Individuals come with their own flaws. As we know, many people have their own biases whether it’s explicit racism or implicit bias.


Bigger picture, the flaws are at every level. Incarceration is disproportionately Black and Brown people. There’s a problem with how police conduct searches and investigate crimes and make arrests. And then of course, the oversentencing problem is huge. Nowhere do you see that more than in drug crimes. It’s well documented. [White] kids who experiment in college with drugs are not prosecuted, whereas Black, Brown or urban youth who are experimenting in the same way are sent away for very, very long periods of time. Needless to say, when you are overprosecuting Black and Brown people as a whole, you’re going to see disproportionate wrongful convictions from those individuals as well.


What was it like working with the families of those who were wrongfully convicted?

It’s always difficult to go back to court and to go through this process. But they’ve been living with [the conviction] a lot longer than I have, and they’re the ones who know that their son or loved one or themselves is innocent. Usually they’re heartened that somebody is fighting for them and bringing it back to court. It gives them some hope.


The alternative is they’re fighting it on their own in an unfamiliar system, in a system that already wrongfully convicted them, in a system that they’re not trained to fight in, in a system that is not going to take untrained lawyers, or loved ones advocating on their behalf, seriously.


Some people remain in prison for 10 or more years before their innocence is proven. What does a person lose when wrongfully convicted? What have your clients lost?

Well, it’s brutal. They’re taken out of society for a significant period of time. They lost time with their family. Loved ones die. Loved ones can’t always stick by them or they lose touch with them. They are unemployable because they don’t have job skills. Lots of times they are very, very young, like high school age, when they were wrongfully convicted, or younger. They don’t have education. They suffer from violence in the prison system from correctional officers and other inmates. Many times they are hardened. They have significant Post Traumatic Stress Disorder when they’re released.


Are folks who are wrongfully convicted compensated in Illinois?

They can be. There’s a statute called the Certificate of Innocence and if you’re certified innocent, you can then petition for state statutory compensation. But it takes a long time. It’s not automatic.


Some of them are more successful than others. I have a client who never got the money for three years because the state wouldn’t pass a budget.


The process to exoneration seems really difficult. Have you been more successful than you expected?

You know, the successes are wonderful but the losses stick with you more. I’ve had a lot of success. I’m proud of that. I’m super happy for my clients especially in the last year or two – I’ve had more success than I probably ever envisioned in some of these cases. But I still have clients who I firmly believe in who are still sitting in prison. So, I think of them more often than I think of the wins.


This report was produced by City Bureau, a Woodlawn-based civic journalism lab. For more information and to get involved, visit www.citybureau.org

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