When Carl Chatman walked out of Dixon Correctional Center a free man Tuesday, a terrible wrong was righted.
The former inmate had been incarcerated on a sexual assault conviction for more than a decade.
However, his accuser recanted her statement that Chatman raped her in Chicago in 2002.
The Cook County state’s attorney’s office dropped the charges.
And, for the first time in 11 years, Chatman is free.
His attorney and three of his siblings came to Dixon to greet him as he stepped out of the prison doors.
Chatman’s freedom is due to the work of a relatively new division of the Cook County state’s attorney’s office, established by State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez in February 2012.
The goal of the Conviction Integrity Unit is to root out wrongful convictions. The unit came into being because of questionable prosecutions over the years in Cook County.
Alvarez deserves credit for creating a mechanism and an atmosphere where such cases can reviewed. The unit’s work has led to freedom for several other inmates before Chatman’s release.
Cook County, the state’s largest, has come upon a good idea to further ensure the integrity and fairness of the criminal justice system.
What about the other 101 counties in Illinois?
Prosecutors in smaller counties may not have the wherewithal, or inclination, to follow Cook County’s lead.
Could the Illinois Attorney General’s office be of assistance when wrongful convictions are suspected?
A spokeswoman, Natalie Bauer, said that while the attorney general’s office is not a primary prosecutor of crime, “We do review cases at the circuit court level as the appellate prosecutor.” About 300 to 400 cases are handled a year, she said.
When the evidence does not support pursuing a case, the attorney general’s office will opt not to appeal, Bauer said.
Illinoisans who are interested in justice should follow the work of Cook County’s Conviction Integrity Unit.
If the unit continues to uncover wrongful convictions and set them straight, state leaders should look for ways to duplicate its operations on a statewide level.
After all, if one Illinois county can wrongfully convict defendants, the other 101 might have done the same thing.