There are now just three Cook County prosecutors to handle claims of wrongful conviction, according to the state’s attorney’s office.
That’s down from 10 prosecutors as recently as 2012.
The post-conviction unit handles claims from people who have already exhausted their appeals. In an email, Tandra Simonton, a spokeswoman for the state’s attorney’s office, said each attorney in that unit is now handling more than 100 cases.
The diminished staff was a key point in a Wednesday hearing seeking to overturn drug convictions tied to a corrupt former Chicago police officer.
Josh Tepfer, an attorney with the University of Chicago’s Exoneration Project, which seeks to have some convictions overturned, represents the men seeking to be exonerated. All of them were arrested by a crew of Chicago police officers led by disgraced Sgt.Ronald Watts.
On Wednesday, Assistant State’s Attorney Linda Walls asked Judge LeRoy Martin for extra time to respond to Tepfer’s motion because one of the other attorneys in the post-conviction office is on vacation.
Tepfer called the unit “overburned” and said it was a sign of inadequate staffing that one person’s vacation could delay justice for 15 men.
Ultimately, Martin sided with the state’s attorney’s office, but expressed reluctance, telling both sides, “I’m not warm and fuzzy about waiting.”
After the hearing, Tepfer said he did not resent anyone for taking a vacation, but that delays happen too often on post-conviction petitions.
“Cook County has had a notorious history of wrongful convictions, police corruption, and a very active post-conviction-litigation bar,” Tepfer said. “It is no exaggeration to say many of these cases linger in court for five, 10, 20 years. Lots of people are to blame for that. It’s a systemic problem, but it’s not a problem I’m just gonna roll over and shrug my shoulders [about].”
The state’s attorney’s office didn’t disagree.
“We need more prosecutors so we can effectively serve justice,” Simonton said.