Wrongful conviction organization sues prosecutors for potentially exculpatory DNA evidence

The Exoneration Project filed a lawsuit Monday morning against the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office for information about DNA evidence that they say could help exonerate the wrongfully convicted.

The nonprofit organization, which works to overturn wrongful convictions, filed public records requests in late May and early June for documents related to a national DNA database known as the Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS. The state’s attorney’s office rejected these requests, citing privacy issues.

The database has DNA samples from people who have been convicted of crimes, as well as samples from crime scenes. A new DNA sample sometimes matches up in the system with an old crime scene. When this happens, State police send a “hit notification” to prosecutors. If someone was previously convicted for that crime, this match could serve as strong evidence of their innocence.

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But prosecutors are not obligated to share this new evidence with people who have already gone to prison, according to the complaint. The Exoneration Project’s lawsuit seeks these “hit notifications” as well as the state’s attorney’s policies regarding CODIS.

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“What we also know is that sometimes there’s these hit notifications to cold cases, and the individuals who are convicted are not made aware of these DNA hits,” said Joshua Tepfer, an attorney with the Exoneration Project. He added that his organization is not looking for any specific information about the DNA itself.

A spokesperson for the state’s attorney’s office declined to comment on the lawsuit or on their policies around the use of CODIS.

The complaint cites the case of Michael Googe, a Georgia man who was convicted of burglary in 2007. After a different man’s DNA was found to match blood from the crime scene, state investigators sent a hit notification to local prosecutors. But Googe did not know about this new evidence until five years later, when it was discovered through a collaboration between law enforcement officials and the Georgia Innocence Project.

The lawsuit notes that Illinois and Cook County have “a unique and troubled history regarding wrongful convictions.” Some of the most prominent exoneration cases in Illinois’s history, including the Dixmoor Five and the Englewood Four, relied on new DNA evidence from CODIS, according to the lawsuit.

“We think it’s clearly in the public interest to make sure that the public knows about [hit notifications] and certainly that the convicted defendant would know that,” said Tepfer.

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