When the Center on Wrongful Convictions (CWC) launched in April 1999, wrongful convictions were viewed as anomalies — rare exceptions to an otherwise well-oiled criminal justice machine. Sadly, prisons and death rows around the country are populated by countless individuals who have been wrongly convicted: innocent people doing someone else's time.
"Our efforts not only free innocent people, they reveal mistakes and missteps at every juncture of our justice system—from the moment the yellow crime tape goes up until the last appeal," says CWC Executive Director Emeritus Rob Warden. The Center on Wrongful Convictions is at the forefront of the current nationwide movement to reform the criminal justice system and is dedicated to identifying and rectifying wrongful convictions and other serious miscarriages of justice. The CWC's work focuses primarily in three areas: representation, research, and reform.
The Center receives approximately over 3,000 inquiries a year from inmates around the country seeking our legal representation. Center faculty and staff attorneys, in partnership with outside pro bono attorneys, CWC students, and volunteers, review these requests and represent imprisoned clients with claims of actual innocence. Although the Center focuses primarily on post-conviction cases, occasionally CWC attorneys serve as co-counsel with experienced trial lawyers working pro bono, in the retrials of cases that have been reversed and remanded. CWC attorneys also prepare amicus ("friend of the court") briefs in the trial and appellate courts. The Center also has pioneered projects focused on representing wrongfully convicted youth and women — the first projects of their kind in the United States.
Center on Wrongful Convictions faculty and staff have written groundbreaking books and articles on the causes of wrongful convictions. The CWC co-founded of the National Registry of Exonerations, a database that provides detailed information about known exonerations in the United States since 1989. The CWC's research focuses both on individual cases and identifying systemic problems with the criminal justice system including:
- erroneous eyewitness identification
- false and coerced confession
- official misconduct
- inadequate legal defense
- false forensic evidence
- perjury and incentivized testimony (snitches)
The CWC raises public awareness about the prevalence, causes, and social costs of wrongful convictions, and uses casework and research to advocate for policy reforms aimed at preventing future wrongful convictions. The Center on Wrongful Convictions has blazed a trail of revolutionary reforms, including:
- Moratorium on Illinois executions declared by former Governor Ryan in January 2000 and his decision to commute all Illinois death sentences in January 2003
- A comprehensive package of criminal justice reforms approved by the Illinois General Assembly in November 2003, perhaps most significant of which was that police must record all custodial interrogations of suspects in murder cases. Illinois was the first state to address the problem by statute, which makes statements inadmissible unless the entire interrogation has been recorded. Twelve other states have since followed the Illinois lead.
- Expanded DNA testing in criminal cases
- Provision of adequate funding for the defense of indigent clients
- Governor Quinn's abolition of Illinois' death penalty (2011)
- U.S. Supreme Court decisions. The Center has been amicus curiae (friend of the court) in seven cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and the supreme courts of various states in support of issues of importance to the wrongfully convicted.
- International reform. In 2008, the Japanese Supreme Court accepted a Center brief in a notorious mass murder case in which a confession may have been coerced. It was the first such brief ever filed in Japan by a U.S. legal organization.
- Compensation for wrongfully convicted exonerees. Following a CWC public forum (2008), the Illinois General Assembly approved a bill to speed the compensation process.
Reforming the criminal justice system to reduce the numbers of men and women sentenced to prison for crimes they did not commit will remain a Center priority for the foreseeable future. Needed reforms include:
- Expand recorded interrogations. Require police to electronically record interrogations - not just in murder cases, but in ALL cases. Record witness interviews by police in order to document and avoid coercion and incentivization of witnesses.
- Improve interrogation procedures. Place limits on the length of interrogations and on tactics which are known to contribute to false confessions, including the use of lies about evidence and the use of polygraphs during interrogations. Develop best practices for interrogating juveniles and other vulnerable suspects.
- Reform police lineups. Change procedures in accordance with social science research to reduce erroneous identifications by victims and eyewitnesses.
- Reform pretrial discovery by enacting open file discovery rules to provide defense attorneys with the tools to fully defend their clients.
- Improve accountability. Hold police and prosecutors accountable for misconduct in criminal investigations and prosecutions.
- Increase and expedite compensation for those wrongfully convicted.