WAUKEGAN, Ill. (CBS) — With four recent high-profile cases, a Waukegan defense lawyer says Lake County has become a hotbed of false convictions.
As WBBM Newsradio’s Regine Schlesinger reports, attorney Jed Stone says the epidemic of false convictions is a national scandal, and nowhere is it worse than in his own backyard.
LISTEN: WBBM Newsradio’s Regine Schlesinger reports
“Lake County has become an epicenter of the epidemic,” he said.
Stone says racism is a major factor.
“The criminal justice system believes that there are expendable people; lesser people; others, not us – and that we therefore treat them differently,” Stone said.
Current Lake County State’s Attorney Michael Waller is retiring at the end of his current term. Two candidates are fighting for his job.
Stone says the issue of false convictions is the key issue in the race.
Leading the high-profile false conviction cases in Lake County is that of Jerry Hobbs, who was jailed for five years awaiting trial, having been charged in the murders of his 8-year-old daughter, Laura Hobbs, and her friend, Krystal Tobias, 9. Their bodies were found in 2005 in the Beulah Park Forest Preserve in Zion.
Hobbs was released after being exonerated by DNA evidence.
A onetime friend of the Tobias family, Jorge Torrez, was charged with the murders last week by the Lake County State’s Attorney’s office. Meanwhile, Hobbs has sued Lake County, saying authorities coerced him to confess to the murders.
In another infamous case, James Edwards was convicted of the 1994 bludgeoning murder of Waukegan appliance store owner Frederick Reckling. Edwards was convicted in Reckling’s death in 1996 after he confessed, but DNA evidence later pointed to Hezekiah Whitfield, 42, of Chicago, who has since been charged.
In a third high-profile incident, Juan Rivera was released from prison this past winter after being exonerated of the murder of Holly Staker, 11, in Waukegan in August 1992.
Staker was fatally stabbed and sexually assaulted while babysitting two younger children. Rivera confessed to the crime after an interrogation, but his DNA was not a match.
Rivera was convicted three times – in 1993, 1998 and 2009 – but his conviction was overturned each and every time. Finally, his conviction was tossed in December of last year, and the investigation into Staker’s death has begun anew.
The Innocence Project began fighting for Starks in 1996 and his remains one of the group’s oldest active cases. An appeals court ordered a new trial after DNA tests showed semen samples from the since-deceased victim ruled out Starks as the rapist.