Law center helps exonerate wrongfully convicted prisoners

Elaine Helm

After being wrongfully convicted of murder and sentenced to death 23 years ago, Robert Kubat made his case this week for the pardon that would return his right to vote and compensate him for time spent in prison.

But how do innocent men end up on death row in the first place? Most become victims of forced confessions, false testimony, biased forensics testing and presumed guilt, experts say.

The head of Northwestern Law School’s Center on Wrongful Convictions said fundamental flaws in the criminal justice system ensure innocent people remain incarcerated or, worse, are executed.

“The system is designed to protect society,” said Robert Warden, the center’s executive director. “It is not, in fact, doing that and is at risk of killing innocent people.”

This month the center’s lawyers are busy attending hearings for clients seeking pardons before Illinois Gov. George Ryan leaves office.

Warden and NU Law Prof. Lawrence Marshall presented Monday the petition of Gary Dotson, the first person in the United States exonerated post-conviction by DNA evidence.

Warden called Dotson “a very lucky man,” because DNA evidence proved he could not have committed the crime for which he was imprisoned.

Clients such as Dotson seek pardons even after being acquitted of their crimes to regain their right to vote and receive monetary compensation for their time in prison, said Marshall, the center’s legal director.

“Through Illinois law, in order to obtain a complete expunging and clearing of your name, it’s necessary to receive a pardon from the governor based on innocence,” he said.

Since Illinois reinstated the death penalty in 1977, nearly 5 percent of the state’s death sentences have been overturned based on actual innocence — meaning the defendants eventually were found not guilty of their crimes.

Ryan instituted a death penalty moratorium in January 2000 that still is in effect.

The governor’s recommendations for death penalty reform mirror the center’s recommendations, Warden said. Regardless of future reforms Warden said Ryan likely would change sentences of all current death row inmates to life in prison before he leaves office.

Ryan and Marshall in June 2002 spoke before the U.S. Senate’s Subcommittee on the Constitution about the moratorium and the criminal justice system’s flaws.

Warden said the center has jumped to the front of the debate about capital punishment as Ryan enters the final months of his term.

“The center has certainly been instrumental in invigorating the debate on the death penalty and wrongful convictions since its inception,” he said.

The Center on Wrongful Convictions receives about 4,000 applications each year from individuals seeking representation, Warden said, but only accepts cases less than 10 years old in which a defendant claims actual innocence.

The center refers most cases from states other than Illinois to one of about 30 other similar organizations across the nation.

At the end of the month, lawyers will attend hearings for the cases of Rolando Cruz — what Marshall called the “most notorious wrongful conviction case in Illinois history” — and Gary Gauger, who was sentenced to death in McHenry County for the murder of his parents and later acquitted.

The Daily’s Jennifer Leopoldt contributed to this report.