Law profs work overtime as Gov. Ryan’s term closes

Elaine Helm

As Illinois Gov. George Ryan enters his final months in office, faculty at the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern’s Law School are busy representing clients seeking gubernatorial pardons.

Law Prof. Lawrence Marshall and Robert Warden, the center’s executive director, appeared Monday morning at a hearing for the petition of Gary Dotson, the first person in the United States to be exonerated by DNA evidence after being convicted.

The hearing took place at the Capitol in Springfield before the Illinois Prisoner Review Board, which likely will make its recommendation to the governor sometime this week, said Marshall, the center’s legal director.

“The governor will then take as long as he thinks is necessary and appropriate to reflect on it,” he said. “Whether that takes two weeks or two months is anybody’s guess.”

Dotson was convicted of aggravated sexual assault and kidnapping in 1979 based on the testimony of the alleged 16-year-old victim, who later said she made up the story in fear that she would become pregnant from consensual sex with her boyfriend. Dotson was granted a new trial in 1989 based on DNA evidence proving he could not have committed the crime. The prosecutor’s office subsequently dropped its charges.

Dotson cannot vote or receive state financial compensation for time in prison without a gubernatorial pardon.

Marshall said the board will hear petitions in regarding three types of cases: individuals already acquitted of crimes in court; prisoners seeking pardons based on rehabilitation or poor health, and about 160 prisoners on death row seeking reduced sentences to life in prison.

“There is a tremendous amount of activity this month,” Marshall said. “That mass amount of petitions is really unprecedented.”

Lawyers with the Center on Wrongful Convictions also filed a petition on behalf of 23 death row inmates who do not want to be pardoned but want the governor to recognize the failure of the justice system in many death penalty cases, Marshall said.

“We’ve taken a position with the governor that whether the prisoner wants (a pardon) or not, the system is broken,” he said.

Warden said cases like Dotson’s make a compelling statement about the system’s failures.

“The injustice in this country is so vast,” he said. “Cases like this are really effective at driving home the point to legislators and their constituents that we need to reform the system.”