Monday, January 14, 2008

Questions and answers with journalist who investigates wrongful convictions

January 10, 2008

By David Mercer, The Associated Press

Northwestern University journalism professor David Protess convinced a pair of Chicago attorneys to look at Herb Whitlock's murder conviction after he and four of his students looked into the case.

Whitlock was released from prison Tuesday after a judge found the evidence against him to be flawed and incomplete.

Some of those who worked on his behalf say Whitlock's life sentence for the 1986 murder of Karen Rhoads meant he did not have the legal resources available to death row inmates and likely stayed in prison longer as a result. Randy Steidl, convicted in the killing of Rhoads and her husband, Dyke, was sentenced to death on much the same evidence. But he was released in 2004.

Protess, who is also director of the Medill Innocence Project at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern, discusses the disparity of those resources, and his involvement in Whitlock's case.

Q: Is there an inequity in the resources available to someone facing a death penalty and someone facing life in prison?

A: I certainly think that attorneys who are defending death penalty cases are far more vigorous ... They also have investigative resources at their disposal - court appointed investigators.

Q: You say legal resources aren't the only advantage death penalty defendants and convicts have in pressing their cases, but also news media attention.

A: Media resources are a part of the issue here. Nothing was happening on this (Whitlock and Steidl) case until it was brought to public attention. I think if that had been done more effectively from the beginning, I think the authorities would have broadened their search and been held more accountable.

Q: How and when did you get involved in the Whitlock and Steidl cases?

A: Randy's mother wrote me a letter. That's how I first heard about it, in '98... I began to review the case and was absolutely appalled that two men could be convicted. The case came down to two witnesses who had really limited credibility and by that point had changed their stories.

Q: How many cases are you working with now?

A: Four. We get about 1,000 requests a year ... from all across the country.

Q: Are any of the cases you're looking at now similar to the Whitlock and Steidl cases?

A: I frankly in 20 years of doing this kind of reporting, have never seen a case as outlandish as the wrongful conviction of Randy Steidl and Herb Whitlock.

Q: How many people now behind bars might be helped if more money was available to them to pay for more or better legal resources?

A: There is no precise number of wrongly convicted ... (but) I can say this: The Justice Department has studied this and found (a conviction) an error rate of roughly 10 percent. Prosecutors who have been surveyed estimate an error rate of 1 percent.

There are 2 million Americans behind bars today. That means even accepting prosecutors' estimates of the scope of the problem, we're talking about 20,000 people who are wrongly prosecuted ... 20,000 people who need help, very few of whom will get it.

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