ABC7 Exclusive: New efforts to prevent wrongful convictions

April 8, 2013 3:21:32 PM PDT
Following an ABC7 and Better Government Association report in 2011, action in Springfield may soon help prevent wrongful convictions.

After almost 100 wrongful conviction cases -- and hundreds of millions of dollars in costs to taxpayers ? there are new efforts to reform Illinois' justice system.

Eric Caine spent 25-years behind bars for a murder he did not commit. He finally saw freedom on St. Patrick's Day in 2011.

"I can't even describe this. It's the first day of my new life. It's amazing. It's wonderful," Caine said at the time of his release.

However, it hasn't been all smiles in the two years since.

"When I went out on my own, about two to three months after, that's when reality hit me. It set in. I had bills to pay, car insurance," said Caine.

Wrongful convictions cost a lot of money - and much of it never reaches the incorrectly accused. Fewer than one-third of the exonerated ever receive money from the state.

"I don't think you can get out of a wrongful conviction without a lot of holes in your emotional and other well-being," said Laura Caldwell, Loyola University Life After Innocence Project.

For stealing 25 years of his life, the state of Illinois gave Caine $199,150.

Other cases like Caine's have elevated the costs of wrongful convictions. A Better Government Association tallied court, incarceration, legal fees and settlements. The grand total was more than $250 million in 2011.

The incalculable cost is the toll it takes on the credibility of our justice system, says Andy Shaw from the Better Government Association.

"All of the malfeasance by law enforcement and forensic experts and prosecutors will result in only one individual held accountable: Jon Burge. That is disgraceful," Shaw said.

State Senator Kwame Raoul is one of the lawmakers working to further reform a system badly scarred by wrongful convictions. Currently, video recordings are required when murders suspects are interrogated. Raoul proposes expanding the recording requirement to all felony cases.

"I have no desire to have a witch hunt for prosecutors or police officers. My desire is to make sure we get it right as often as we can," said Raoul.

Since the original Better Government Association report in 2011, there have been nearly $36 million in new settlements, and at least 10 cases are pending in Illinois courts -- raising the costs of wrongful convictions towards the $300 million mark.

The Better Government Association says the bill on videotaped confessions is the first step in what will be a long process to prevent future mistakes.

Caine, in the meantime, has a lawsuit pending against the city of Chicago. He says he often thinks about how else that money could have been used.

"That $300 million you mentioned in defending the indefensible, that could have helped to save some of these schools," Caine said.