The No. 1 reason innocent people go to prison is because of government misconduct.
That’s not just my opinion. It’s the view of the National Registry of Exonerations, which catalogs wrongful conviction cases and their underlying causes. The group concluded recently that in 54 percent of cases in which someone was wrongly convicted, it was through willful wrongdoing by police officers or prosecutors.
When I covered Moline City Hall in the 1990s, I met a kind man named Darrel Parker, who was working for the city parks department. He had been wrongly convicted of murder in Nebraska. It took the state of Nebraska more than 60 years to acknowledge its mistake and fully exonerate him.
But how was he convicted? Police and prosecutors hid evidence pointing to someone else having committed the crime and a professional interrogator coerced a false confession from Parker.
At the time he was wrongly convicted, Parker was a farm kid in his mid 20s who had just graduated from Iowa State University. And when I interviewed him decades later, I was a farm kid in my mid-20s who had just graduated from Iowa State.
I realized that neither my college degrees, my upbringing nor my professional status could protect me – or anyone else -- from police misconduct.
Former Gov. Jim Edgar used to say, “The best disinfectant against corruption is sunshine.”
It’s incumbent on journalists, citizens and others to hold those in power – including police officers – accountable. And it’s never enough to point vaguely at a department or agency and say, “There is a problem over there.”
The nature of democracy is to hold individuals, not institutions, accountable.
After all, agencies don’t go to prison. But individuals do. Bureaucracies don’t have their name on the ballot, but candidates do. And an organization can’t be shamed into compliance, but its people sometimes can.
That’s why it’s important to name names.
When 118 people were tortured in its custody, the Chicago Police Department didn’t suffer. But Commander Jon Burge did. He was sentenced to four and one-half years in prison and lost his pension. By holding that one man to account an example was set for an entire department.
When I was a Statehouse bureau chief for a chain of Illinois newspapers, a man named Gary Gauger dropped by my office. He was wrongly convicted of murdering his parents in rural McHenry County. He served two years on Illinois’ death row before his conviction was thrown out. His conviction stemmed from false testimony on the part of police officers who investigated the case.
His tale of wrongful conviction left me speechless. And his is hardly an isolated case. There were 13 innocent men freed from Illinois’ death row. Of those 13, 10 were tortured by Burge or those under his command.
During the 33 years I’ve been a reporter I’ve uncovered police officers engaged in sexual assaults, theft, physical abuse and wrongful use of deadly force.
How did I find out about these acts of misconduct? Almost always I was tipped off by good officers outraged by what was happening in their department. A good cop has no use for a bad one. And our society has many good officers.
But sometimes police corruption takes a different form. I’m talking about sins of omission rather than commission. When a police officer looks away when someone commits a crime because they are powerful or connected, that is corrupt too.
Everyone is entitled to equal justice under the law.
Our society imbues those who wear a gun and a badge with enormous power. They can take someone’s property, take a person’s freedom or take someone’s life.
With that much power comes responsibility. And with responsibility comes accountability.
If we don’t hold them accountable, who will?
Scott Reeder, a staff writer for Illinois Times, can be reached at: [email protected].