Less than two months into his first term, state Rep. Scott Drury introduced two bills he hoped would address a persistent failure of the state's justice system — wrongful convictions.
Drury, a former federal prosecutor, represents part of Lake County, which has a history of convicting the wrong men. He wants police to record more interrogations and use lineup methods intended to keep officers from steering eyewitnesses toward specific suspects. He hopes to reduce false confessions and mistaken identifications, both of which have sent many innocent people to prison.
Law enforcement authorities agree those are worthy goals, but the bills appear unlikely to pass before lawmakers go home at the end of May.
The legislation faces resistance from agencies including the Chicago Police Department and Cook County state's attorney's office. Prosecutors say the recording proposal is logistically unrealistic, and police say the lineup measure is impractical and could hinder witness cooperation.
Drury argues the bills will help authorities make stronger cases while preventing misconduct and unintentional police errors, but he and the agencies haven't found consensus on either proposal.
On the recording bill, prosecutors and Drury agree more interrogations should be audio- or videotaped to shield suspects from coercion and block bogus police abuse claims. Law enforcement groups and reform advocates praise a 2003 law mandating recording of interrogations in homicides and agree the requirement should be expanded.
They just haven't reached agreement on what else should be taped.
"The devil is in the details," said Daniel Kirk, chief of staff to Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez.
The state Senate, meanwhile, passed a bill Thursday that takes a softer approach to having more interrogations recorded, relaxing rules governing voluntary taping in hopes police will choose to do it more often. That's not enough, Drury said.
"If we want to prevent wrongful convictions and we want to prevent the next (former Chicago police Cmdr. Jon) Burge, we need to require recording of more interrogations," he said.
A leader in bad cases
Drury, a Democrat from Highwood elected in November, described Lake County's spate of wrongful convictions as "horrible." Four defendants in major felony cases there have been exonerated by DNA evidence since 2010.
Three of the cases suggest the drawbacks of not recording police interrogations, in that the suspects confessed after long questioning sessions they claim were abusive. None was recorded because the cases all came before the homicide interrogation-recording law took effect in 2005. Potentially pricey lawsuits against authorities are pending in two of those cases.
Illinois is responsible for roughly 10 percent of the 1,102 known exonerations nationwide since 1989, more than every state except Texas and California, according to the National Registry of Exonerations, a project of the Northwestern University and University of Michigan law schools.
Of Illinois' 115 exonerations, 86 were in Cook County. Suspects confessed in 32 cases, while 42 involved a mistaken witness identification, the registry shows.
Benefits, challenges of recording interrogations
The Innocence Project in New York sees recording as "the single most effective reform in dealing with the problem of false confessions," said co-founder Peter Neufeld.
Recordings, advocates note, provide a definitive account of an interrogation, preventing overly aggressive questioning, shielding police from abuse claims and preventing expensive court proceedings sometimes needed to determine what happened in an interview room.
Ten years ago, Illinois became the first state to pass a law requiring recorded homicide interrogations, a fix pushed by then-state Sen. Barack Obama as lawmakers grappled with faulty death penalty cases.
Now, 16 states and the District of Columbia go beyond Illinois' rule, requiring the recording of interrogations of people in custody for crimes other than homicide, said Chicago attorney Thomas Sullivan, a recording proponent who has helped Drury.
"(Illinois is) now, ironically, lagging," Sullivan said.
Cook County prosecutors and an Illinois state's attorney's group had only positive things to say about the homicide recording law.
"In a perfect world, you'd have (a recording) in every case," Kirk said.
Drury's original bill ran along those lines, mandating audio- or videotaping of all felony interrogations. The homicide interrogation-recording law also allows either kind of recording.
Recording all felony interrogations would be "absolutely impractical" in Cook County, which disposed of some 34,000 felony cases by trial, plea or other means in 2012, Kirk said. Chicago doesn't have rooms with recording gear at each police station, he said, questioning whether police would have to move suspects for interrogations.
Statewide, authorities could face technological and staffing challenges in trying to implement such a law, said Matt Jones, associate director of the state appellate prosecutor's office. Authorities have also questioned how Drury's plans would be funded.
Drury's first proposal did not go smoothly. Kirk accused Drury of failing to seek early law enforcement collaboration. Drury questioned whether law enforcement officials are committed to meaningful reform, suggesting authorities cite cost as an excuse to kill ideas they dislike.
That criticism isn't fair to Cook County prosecutors, Kirk said. His office proposed expanding taping to six serious felonies, including aggravated criminal sexual assault and armed robbery.
In its latest form, the bill calls for the recording of interrogations from a larger group of major felonies, which prosecutors oppose.
One man who supports expanding recording is Scott Sornberger, who believes such a proposal might have saved him four months in jail.
In 2000, after a man robbed a bank in Knoxville, a western Illinois city of about 3,000, a bank worker said the suspect on camera resembled Sornberger, according to court records. Authorities said his then-wife, Teresa, confessed to being involved and implicated him with little prodding, court records show.
But she claimed officers threatened to call the state to take her children and promised she wouldn't be charged if she implicated her husband. Authorities soon found another suspect and the Sornbergers were freed, court records show.
Scott Sornberger believes police couldn't have drawn out his former wife's admission had they known they were being taped. A bill such as Drury's, Sornberger said, could work to "keep the police on the straight and narrow or to see differences in stories."
In contrast to Drury, Sen. Kwame Raoul, D-Chicago, gained swift Senate passage for a bill that would relax the state's eavesdropping law so police could record suspects without their permission, a measure the Cook County prosecutor's office helped draft. The bill would also compel the state to track what police are recording. Raoul said his bill represents a foot in the door that could convince police of the benefits of taping.
Drury said he hasn't decided how he'd vote on the bill but that he hopes its passage isn't cited as a reason not to make recording mandatory.
Shifting eyewitness procedures
Drury's bill on eyewitness lineups has proven just as contentious.
The current version would call on departments — when practical — to conduct live or photo lineups with a "blind" administrator, an officer who doesn't know the suspect's identity. Failing that, officers would use a photo lineup method intended to counteract an officer's bias toward a suspect. The bill also calls for officers to use five "fillers" — nonsuspects who complete a lineup — and videotape lineups.
At least three states and some other jurisdictions have mandated lineup methods designed to avoid false identifications, said Rob Warden, executive director of Northwestern's Center on Wrongful Convictions.
The Chicago Police Department didn't respond to requests for comment. Two top officers did, however, go to Springfield to weigh in against the bill at an occasionally testy committee hearing April 16.
Chief of Detectives Thomas Byrne told legislators that taping lineups would intimidate already frightened witnesses. Cmdr. Joseph Salemme said other parts of the bill pose impractical burdens.
"It's abundantly clear to me that we, as a department, conduct proper, fair and impartial lineups," Salemme said.
Byrne said he likes parts of the bill and doesn't think the agency and Drury are far from agreement. Drury disagreed.
"I think we're pretty far apart," he said at the hearing. "The major components ask for blind lineups that are videotaped and the response was, 'We're pretty close if we just get rid of the blind and the videotaping.'"
Drury offered to cut videotaping from the lineups bill before agreeing to bring the measures to another committee hearing, the date for which has not been announced..
Given his bills' status in committee, they appear unlikely to pass before the session closes in late May. If they stall, he plans to keep pushing the proposals next session, he said.
Before the new Restorative Justice Committee this month , the freshman legislator likened the process of creating a bill that can pass to playing a video game.
Every time he beats one level, he said, another more difficult challenge awaits.Copyright © 2015, CT Now