CHICAGO (CBS) — DNA is supposed to be the key to cracking criminal cases and exonerating those who are wrongfully convicted.
But what if those DNA hits never get to the right people? As CBS 2 Investigator Megan Hickey reported, that is the very premise of a lawsuit field Monday by the Exoneration Project.
If DNA collected at a crime scene matches DNA that is in already in the Illinois state database, state police then send a notification to the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office.
The Exoneration Project wants to review those notifications to see if there is evidence that would clear the name of someone who is sitting in prison for a crime they didn’t commit.
“This is information that would show whether there are more people who have been wrongly convicted,” said attorney Matt Topic of the firm Loevy & Loevy. “We’ve seen instances in the past in which DNA evidence later exonerates people for crimes that they had not committed, and the idea behind the Freedom of Information Act is that we can have that information so we can find out if that’s happening.”
Topic and attorney Joshua Tepfer with The Exoneration Project are behind the lawsuit, which points to Cook County’s long history of wrongful convictions, including the Englewood Four.
Harold Richardson, Michael Saunders, Vincent Thames, and Terrill Swift, were wrongfully convicted of the 1994 sexual assault of and murder of Nina Glover. Years later, they were exonerated because of a DNA hit to a serial rapist and murderer.
The Exoneration Project worries that these potentially exonerating notifications might never make their way back to the person who was wrongly convicted of the crime.
So they requested it through the Freedom of Information Act.
The State’s Attorney’s office acknowledged that it has been receiving DNA hit notifications since 2016. But the office said disclosing them would be an “unwarranted invasion of privacy.”
“I don’t think anyone is purposely doing anything or purposely trying to hide this information,” Tepfer said. “I just think it doesn’t appear that there’s any systems in place to ensure that this evidence is being given over to the persons incarcerated.”
The Exoneration Project isn’t seeking money. The organization is asking for a copy of the DNA hit notifications in order to investigate potential claims of innocence.
“We want the information,” Tepfer said. “We think it’s in the public interest to get that information.”
In a FOIA response, the State’s Attorney’s office said it does not have physical access to the database, instead they are copied on emails from The Illinois State Police regarding the notifications.
On Monday, a representative of the State’s Attorney’s office declined to comment on the lawsuit, citing pending litigation.
The suit was also prompted by a wrongful conviction out of Georgia.
A Georgia man was wrongly convicted and sent to prison for 10 years. The local prosecutor’s office had received a DNA notification that exonerated him, but that information wasn’t not shared, and so he spent an additional five years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.