Report: Cook County leads nation in exonerations, false confessions

Daniel Taylor, right, was exonerated in June 2013 after spending 20 years in prison for murder. He's pictured here in 2001 with former Chicago Tribune investigative reporter Maurice Possley. [Photo courtesy of National Registry of Exonerations]

Daniel Taylor, right, was exonerated in June 2013 after spending 20 years in prison for murder. He's pictured here in 2001 with former Chicago Tribune investigative reporter Maurice Possley. [Photo courtesy of National Registry of Exonerations]

Cook County has a long history of false confessions resulting in wrongful convictions. Now there are numbers supporting that claim.

According to a report by the National Registry of Exonerations, 95 people were exonerated in Cook County between January 1989 and December of 2013, almost twice as many as the next highest in the country. False confessions accounted for nearly 40 percent of the county’s wrongful convictions. In cases of murder or attempted murder, the number jumps to 47 percent.

“This is a problem that has not been adequately addressed,” said Rob Warden, executive director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law, which partnered with University of Michigan Law School to form the registry. Officials “ought to explain why this is happening, and they ought to be interested in trying to stop it.”

Daniel Taylor is one of those 47 percent. He filed a federal lawsuit this week alleging Chicago police coerced a confession from him and manufactured evidence in the 1992 murder of Jeffery Lassiter and Sharon Haugabook. Taylor, who was 17 and in federal custody at the time, was released last June after spending two decades in prison. Deon Patrick, who was convicted along with Taylor, was exonerated last month.

The Chicago Police Department declined to comment on the study, and the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office could not be reached.

Released Tuesday, the report is based on 1,281 recorded exonerations, which were discovered through research from when the program began in May 2012 to the end of 2013. The registry continues to grow almost daily23 exonerations have been added since Jan. 1.

Cook County’s 95 exonerations are nearly twice as many as Los Angeles County’s 50, despite a significant population disparity5.2 million to 10 million. But state of justice in Cook County may not be as bleak as those figures indicate.

There is no official system of tracking exonerations, so the registry relies solely on its researchers to keep count. And it’s likely they’re better informed about Cook County because it’s home to Northwestern, and a high number of lawyers and organizations in the region are engaged with the issue and willing to work pro-bono.

“I think they’re just better at catching it,” said Maurice Possley, a Pulizer Prize-winning former journalist  who specialized in criminal justice investigations at the Chicago Tribune and now serves as the registry’s senior researcher. “More attention is paid to it.”

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