Illinois considers criminal reforms

Sarah Warning

Almost four months after helping persuade former Gov. George Ryan grant clemency to all Illinois death row inmates, Northwestern’s Center on Wrongful Convictions is pushing for more reforms to help reduce the number of people convicted of crimes they did not commit.

Over the past two years, the Illinois General Assembly has been debating changes in the collection and use of eyewitness testimony, “jailhouse snitches,” and scientific evidence such as DNA. Rob Warden, the center’s executive director, said he thinks bills detailing these reforms will reach the governor’s office for approval within the next few months.

“It’s a fundamental package we really hope will be a model for the nation,” Warden said.

A bill related to one of the reforms, the Videotaped Confessions Act, is scheduled for debate in the Illinois House of Representatives today.

Warden said if confessions and interrogations are videotaped it might be easier to discover police manipulation that could lead suspects to give false confessions.

Police are allowed to exaggerate evidence or try to persuade suspects they could get off easier if they confess, Warden said.

“Often after lengthy interrogation, even though common sense tells you this is not the right thing to do, you just want it to end so badly (you confess),” he said. “We think the entire custodial interrogation process should be video recorded so we can at least go back to this later and see what could have gone wrong.”

Journalism Prof. David Protess, whose class conducted an investigation that led to the exoneration of former death row inmate Aaron Patterson, said he likely would not have been convicted if videotaped confessions were used.

“If videotaped confessions were used in 1986, Patterson probably wouldn’t have spent a day in jail,” Protess said. “His whole case was based on a false confession.”

Warden said Gov. Rod Blagojevich might veto the bill for videotaped confessions because of lobbying from groups including the Fraternal Order of Police. A Blagojevich spokesman said the governor might veto the act if it doesn’t garner support from police and lawyers.

“(Blagojevich) was in favor of videotaped confessions but not interrogations, because there have been concerns raised about the ability of the police and the prosecutors to do their job,” said the spokesman, Tom Schafer.

Earlier this year Blagojevich extended the moratorium on the death penalty and has expressed interest in reforming the state’s capital-punishment system, Schafer said. “I think he made it clear that he would like to see reforms to make the death penalty fair. And he certainly believes, as did Gov. Ryan, that there are problems with the system.”

Warden said the reforms advocated by the center will modify evidence and testimony that can be susceptible to errors.