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Peter Neufeld Responds to Anita Alvarez’ Open Letter to 60 Minutes

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Chicago Tribune writer Eric Zorn reached out to Innocence Project co-founder Peter Neufeld for a response to Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez’ ‘open letter’ following the airing of a devastating interview of her on the CBS program, 60 Minutes. Here’s what Peter had to say; it’s long but well worth the full reprint:

What I am most concerned with is not Ms. Alvarez’s individual comments which can and will be easily refuted. Rather, it is the fact that her letter reveals that she is simply stuck in denial of the magnitude of the catastrophic consequences suffered by nine young African American men who were stone cold innocent but lost the best years of their lives.   

            The first step to improving a situation where mistakes and misconduct occurred in the past is to admit that errors were made. The admission of error  is a fundamental first step whether a shuttle crashes, a hospital mishandles a patient or an innocent person languishes in prison for a crime he did not commit.   If you can’t first admit error, there is no hope for meaningful improvement or change. 

The most serious aspect of the manner in which Ms. Alvarez has handled these cases, is her utter unwillingness to admit that the Dixmoor and Englewood convictions of nine teenage boys were tragic failures of the criminal justice system. Instead of apologizing for the mistakes that were made, she dug her heels in defending the miscarriages of just at every turn in the proceedings.

            In Dixmoor, despite the DNA hit to a convicted rapist who had been released on parole into the victim’s neighborhood shortly before her abduction and murder,  and despite the fact that he, unlike the boys, was 20 years older than her with no reason to know her much less deposit his semen in her, it took months of litigation and the young men’s needless continued incarceration, before Alvarez’s office recognized that the writing was on the wall.

             In the Englewood case where a prostitute had been raped and strangled, more than a year after the DNA hit to Johnnie Douglas, who had a lengthy record of strangling prostitutes, Ms. Alvarez’s  office opposed all motions to vacate the conviction, claiming absurdly that the new evidence was insignificant.

After Judge Biebel rejected all of her specious arguments and ruled in favor of the young men,  the state was left with no choice but to dismiss the indictments.  Nevertheless, Alvarez  continued to aggressively oppose in court  the young men’s application for certificates of innocence.

Clearly, as demonstrated by her conduct in these cases and her petulance with 60 Minutes, Ms. Alvarez lacks insight into the causes of wrongful conviction and lacks an appreciation that her job is to do justice for all the people in Cook County, rather than merely defend past criminal convictions no matter what the cost.

Here are two of her assertions which are demonstrably false and reflect poorly on her suitability for continuing as the State’s Attorney:

1.       Alvarez: “we have not uncovered any evidence of misconduct by the police officers or the states attorneys that took the statements in these cases”

My response:  You can’t uncover that which you don’t rigorously and objectively investigate.   One of the states attorneys who took a confession in the Englewood case was the young Fabio valentini, who currently has risen to be one of Alvarez’s top deputies. I think he is the chief of the criminal bureau. How can she on the one hand protect him while conducting a fair investigation into the facts? In any other situation, the State’s Attorney would recuse herself and ask that the allegations of misconduct be investigatedby someone independent of her office.

As for her not finding any evidence of misconduct with respect to the officers is equally damming. At least two of the officers in the Englewood case were responsible for securing other false confessions that  Alvarez knows about. Officer Cassidy took false confessions from 7 and 8 year old boys, confessions that were proven false when DNA connected Floyd Durr (a convicted child rapist) to the crime.  When prosecuting civilians, prosecutors routinely rely on past mis-behavior of an accused to help prove motive or common scheme. Evidently for Ms. Alvarez, what is good for the goose is not appropriate for the gander. 

2.       Alvarez responding to Pitt’s question that years later you find that the DNA found inside the victim’s body belonged to Johnnie Douglas and Johnnie Douglas is a convicted serial rapist and murderer – “that doesn’t tell you he most likely is the person who killed this woman?”  

Alvarez: “No. it doesn’t. is he a bad guy: absolutely, he is. absolutely. But, can we prove, just by someone’s bad background, that they committed this particular crime? It takes much more” 

 My response: In the law, one can lie or decieve by omission. Ms. Alvarez’s point is disingenuous and deceptive at best.  We are not just talking about a “bad guy.” The victim in the Englewood case was a prostitute who was raped and strangled.  Johnnie Douglas’ semen was found inside her.  Johnnie Doulas had been convicted of murdering another prostitute by strangulation and assaulting still others by attempted strangulation.  Indeed, what she omits from her defense is the fact that years ago, the Cook County prosecutor’s office applied for and secured a court order allowing them to bring up in a second murder prosecution of Douglas that he was nicknamed “Maniac” and that he had a modus operandi of strangling prostitutes.  But there is more. She also fails to mention that the initial police report on the Glover  murder investigation states that Douglas was at the crime scene at 7:00 AM and when interviewed by policed claimed  falsely that he “knew nothing.” 

Prosecutors often secure convictions based on “false exculpatory statements.” His semen was inside her, yet he claimed to know nothing.  She acknowledges in her letter that Douglas had sex with the victim but fails to acknowledge that Douglas lied to the police about having had sex with the victim.  Ms. Alvarez also knew that Doulgas lived at least a mile from the area, so it was a little odd that he was in innocently in the area at 7:00 AM. Also, the police would have known at the time that Douglas had been accused of four violent assaults of prostitutes prior to November 8, 1994 when he lied to police about knowing the victim.

She also fails to mention that no DNA evidence connects the murder to Thames basement, as alleged in the confessions. Not a trace.

Finally, her claim that she could not prove Douglas guilty beyond a reasonable doubt is contradicted by history. 

1.       Floyd Durr, described above, was charged based on his DNA and the fact of his prior similar crimes (modus operandi);

2.      Corethian Bell case – Bell confessed to killing his mother, but DNA matched to DeShawn Boyd  who was charged with a similar crime only blocks away. –DeShawn  was charged (and pled guilty to life) based on his DNA and his past crimes;

3.      Johnnie Douglas himself – In the second murder prosecution, Douglas was convicted  based on his DNA and his prior criminal history  (including his prior murder and five prior violent assaults). Douglas was acquitted in the second murder but charges would not have been brought if the state didn’t think they could be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.

This case is the same. Douglas is deceased, but if he were alive, he could be charged and proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt based on his DNA and his prior murders (even the murder acquittal would be allowed into evidence) and his prior sexual assaults, not to mention his inexplicable presence at the crime scene which would all be admissible to show his modus operandi.
            [I]t should be obvious that Ms Alvarez is cascading through the arc of denial.   Ultimately the arc will bend toward justice.  Unlike Ms. Alvarez, so many decent and professional police and prosecutors conduct root cause analyses in order to come to terms with the errors and missteps that lead to these wrongful convictions,  they take corrective action, implement improvements,  and the community is better for it.

Why can’t Anita Alvarez be like them?  

Peter NeufeldCo-director — Innocence Project

Will Anita Alvarez respond to Peter’s rebuttal to her rejoinder to 60 Minutes? Stay tuned!

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