Unprecedented data project exposes what advocates call wrongful conviction crisis in Chicago

ByChuck Goudie and Barb Markoff, Christine Tressel, Tom Jones, Maggie Green and Adriana Aguilar WLS logo
Tuesday, December 5, 2023
Data exposes what advocates call wrongful conviction crisis in Chicago
The Truth, Hope and Justice Initiative's database of 23 years shows wrongful conviction lawsuits have cost Chicago tax payers millions of dollars.

CHICAGO (WLS) -- The massive impact of wrongful conviction legal cases in Chicago is a financial and moral crisis the city is ignoring, according to social justice advocates.

An elaborate new database that tracks 23 years of wrongful conviction lawsuits shows this crisis has already cost Chicago taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars. Civil rights attorneys question why the city continues to fight the cases of those who have been declared factually innocent.

The Truth, Hope and Justice Initiative is hammering its message to the City of Chicago and Mayor Brandon Johnson to deal with what it calls an emergency.

"Chicago is the wrongful conviction capital of America. We're going to look at this data, understand the data, make recommendations, working with key stakeholders with the city, and then we're going to take the same approach and go to municipalities, cities across the country. But from our research, Chicago is at the top of the list and worst city dealing with this issue," said Andrew Stroth, founder of the Truth, Hope and Justice Initiative. "The city of Chicago has a billion dollar wrongful conviction problem. It's a crisis."

Chicago continues to fight lawsuits against people who were exonerated. Many have certificates of innocence, which are granted by a judge.

The past two years, the social justice group partnered with a coalition of lawyers and corporations to file public records requests and build a massive database of more than 1,700 lawsuits highlighting how much Chicago taxpayers have paid fighting wrongful conviction cases against the city.

"What the wrongful conviction data has shown us is the city continues to lose these cases, the city continues to spend tens of millions of dollars paying outside counsel to defend these cases. They consistently lose at trial. Millions of dollars, and then are also responsible for paying legal fees to the plaintiffs' attorneys on top of the settlements or verdicts," Stroth said.

The ABC7 Data Team corroborated the Truth, Hope and Justice project's findings in the report that highlights 300 of the cases.

Dozens of data scientists and legal professionals, including attorney Alex Zeltser, volunteered their time.

"No one has sort of an economic incentive to get it done without the scale and scope. You know, law firms, outside organizations can bring in sort of that enthusiasm throughout the organizations for the project. So, I think it was a lot of people involved in this project, and you needed a lot in order to be able to create this type of database," said Zeltser, a partner at Ropes & Gray law firm.

Since 2000, Chicago has doled out more than $675 million on wrongful conviction litigation.

"The numbers are shocking...and then when you look at the current cases pending, right now, there's at least 200 wrongful conviction cases pending against the city of Chicago based on our analysis. And based on predictive analytics, this is a billion dollar problem today for the city of Chicago," said Stroth.

"I think the most important thing that this project brings to the table is that it increases transparency around the litigation related to police misconduct. I think that, you know, historically there's not been a lot of information that's made publicly available about litigation related to police misconduct. And it's been sort of hard to sort of piece together the information if you're interested in trying to probe into those issues. And so, this database brings together a lot of information and puts it in one place, which I think will be very valuable," said Sharon Fairley, University of Chicago Law School Professor.

The report exposes nearly $138 million has been invoiced by outside law firms during the past two plus decades. Rock Fusco & Connelly, Sotos Law Firm, and Hale & Monico are the top three billers. Each has invoiced more than $24 million since 2000. None of them responded to I-Team requests for interviews.

"I think the ultimate goal is to have it be an instrument for change. How can we spend less money on these types of issues? How can we be more efficient?" said Zeltser.

The initiative group has strong recommendations to the city, including: conducting a risk assessment for pending wrongful conviction cases, building a specialized wrongful conviction unit within the City's Law Department and developing a mediation platform.

"I think what this shows is the power of collaborating when it comes to creating these kinds of transformative initiatives that can help with police reform. You know, collaboration is really essential to really making headway in this space," said Fairley.

"Mayor Johnson needs to take a step back. They need to look at the exposure that the city of Chicago really has, and they need to address this problem, just like they're addressing the migrant problem," said Stroth.

City of Chicago officials and the mayor's office have not responded to I-Team questions.

Attorneys on this initiative say they are going to expand it to other large cities with track records of wrongful conviction lawsuits.