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Illinois Innocence Project Claims Many Imprisoned Because of Flawed Forensics

Man wearing a suit, holding a microphone before a projection screen.
Colleen Reynolds
Illinois Innocence Project Founding Director Larry Golden says many wrongly imprisoned don't get new trials. As he put it, "Just because science is better today doesn't automatically get you in court."

TV detectives might be solving crimes easily with the help of advanced forensic testing, but two legal experts with the Illinois Innocence Project say their caseload is mounting because of flawed forensics.

Lauren Kaeseberg of the Innocence Project spoke at a forum Wednesday co-sponsored by the American Civil Liberties Union of Central Illinois and the YWCA McLean County. The defense lawyer said 24 percent of all wrongful convictions nationwide are due to unreliable and mistaken forensic evidence.

She outlined some of the types of evidence that was regularly admitted at trials during the 1980s and 1990s that involves subjective comparative analysis including fingerprint identification, hair, voice and handwriting analysis.

According to Kaeseberg, DNA testing is the only evidence created through scientific study.

A woman lawyer and her client standing before a microphone wtih a news station flag.
Credit Courtesy of the Illinois Innocence Project
Lawyer Lauren Kaeseberg and her client Bill Amor, who was freed from prison after 22 years he spent after being wrongly convicted due, in part, to flawed forensics.

“The other forensic areas are really things that were built upon and created for the courtroom and expanded in the courtroom and were really used to convict people, and they just don’t have that fundamental, scientific basis," she said.

The 'CSI' Effect

Kaeseberg said citizens are more educated about forensic science because of TV shows, but she said those shows portray characters using scientific methods to get at the truth and that’s not always the case in real life.  

“Shows like 'Law and Order,' 'CSI,' and 'NCIS'—all these sort of crime shows—show really dedicated people who are fixated on solving the crime, getting the right person, admitting when they got it wrong and doing this sort of global view, and it doesn’t always take into consideration things like tunnel vision and mistakes,” she suggested.

Innocence Project Founding Director Larry Golden said police investigators’ tunnel vision was responsible for a DuPage County man spending 22 years in prison on an arson and murder conviction when in fact, the cause of a fatal fire at his home was accidental. The 1995 fire at Bill Amor’s Naperville home killed his mother-in-law.  

Under hours of interrogation that included presenting Amor with divorce papers, the man told police he dropped a lit cigarette on newspapers soaked with alcohol and started the fire. New advances in fire investigation, as described by experts during hearings last year, made the confession, as the judge put it, “scientifically impossible.

Evidence at a new trial showed police convinced fire investigators to change a finding that they couldn’t determine the cause of the fire to a determination that it was a result of arson.

Golden said the message to citizens concerned about justice is that DNA testing is the best and most legitimate scientific evidence—and even it is not 100 percent accurate. He said most other types of evidence introduced at trial should be met with skepticism and not used solely to convict someone.

“I would never convict an individual based on fingerprint evidence alone, just like I would never convict somebody on an eyewitness identification alone or a confession alone," Golden said. "You need other kinds of evidence that will corroborate, and that will help make those kinds of pieces of evidence reliable.”

The Illinois Innocence Project receives more than 300 requests a year for help, and it’s currently working on 40 cases that have been accepted. With publicity about Amor’s release, Golden expects more requests for help to pour in.

In an effort to raise money for its efforts, the Illinois Innocence Project is hosting an event April 28 featuring Jerry Buting, an attorney who represented Steven Avery, whose case was famously featured in the Netflix documentary "Making a Murderer."

Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect that Jerry Buting represented Avery but did not win his release.

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