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No longer Exhibit A for wrongful convictions

Panel a 'fresh set of eyes' for cases

Published: Thursday, May 29, 2014 7:33 a.m. CDT

LAKE VILLA – Lake County is changing its reputation for the better, its top prosecutor says.

A few years ago, when the subject of wrongful convictions was discussed at an out-of-state conference, Lake County was Exhibit A, but that's no longer the case, State's Attorney Michael Nerheim said.

Nerheim, who replaced Michael Waller after the 2012 election, has formed a panel of experts, including retired judges and a civil rights attorney, to re-examine cases.

In a recent speech to the Lindenhurst-Lake Villa Chamber of Commerce, Nerheim referred to the expression, "It is better that 10 guilty persons escape than that one innocent person suffer."

Under his predecessor, DNA exonerated defendants in a number of high-profile cases. In some, though, the state's attorney's office pressed ahead, despite the contrary evidence.

"When you have police officers and prosecutors who believe they have the right guy and they don't, that's the problem," Nerheim said. "These are cases where they really believed they had the right guy. How do you solve that? When I researched this, I kept coming across the same theme. You get tunnel vision, cognitive bias.

"We tend to focus on what we believe happened and disregard evidence that suggests we may be wrong. That's dangerous in our work," he said.

When cases are challenged, Nerheim said, the panel looks into the issues.

"This panel has no ties to any of our cases. I'll give the file to the panel of experts. They bring their background, a fresh set of eyes for these cases," he said.

So far, he said, the state's attorney's office has agreed to all requests for defendants who want DNA tested.

"Now, when you have conferences in California, Lake County is the model for the nation on how you handle wrongful convictions," Nerheim said. "This has become a best practice for the country."

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