Legacy of the Heidelberg case

There is no way to compensate for a wrongful conviction. It destroys lives and taints the entire judicial system – a key foundation of democracy.

Totalitarian states don’t need or want a fair judiciary. Just look at Russian President Vladimir Putin and the arrest of his political opponents. Look at Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and his death squads. Then, there is Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his massive incarceration of journalists and others.

Democratic nations, on the other hand, can’t be democracies without a fair and functioning judiciary.

The Heidelberg case screams questions about fair and functioning.

Wrongful convictions are egregious, especially when incarceration dragged on for 47 years as in the case of Cleve Heidelberg, an African American man convicted of killing a white sheriff’s deputy in Peoria in 1970.

Peoria County Circuit Judge Albert Purham listened to hours of testimony spanning months of court hearings, read thousands of pages of documents, watched a videotaped deposition and found enough doubt to vacate Heidelberg’s conviction. After 47 years in prison, Heidelberg was released May 22.

Although his conviction was vacated, the criminal charges against him have not been dismissed. Judge Purham did not order a new trial, but the criminal charges against Heidelberg could be used by the Peoria County State’s Attorney’s office to call for a new trial.
An independent review of the case removed from all political and social connections with Peoria is needed and justified.
Judge Purham said as much when he stated there was a clear conflict of interest when the Peoria County State’s Attorney’s office that originally prosecuted the case is now in the position of investigating itself.

Unfortunately, the Illinois Attorney General’s office backed out of its appointment as an independent prosecutor.

Next, the defense request for an independent review by the Cook County judicial integrity unit was denied by the judge at a hearing on July 21. Defense attorneys then requested appointment of the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office as prosecutor.

Why are these independent reviews necessary? Just look at the acquittals of police officers nationwide who were videotaped in unprovoked shootings, in some cases of children. Look at the swelling number of wrongfully convicted prisoners being released in recent years.

This problem is recognized by more than two dozen jurisdictions across the country that have established judicial integrity units to provide an independent case review looking for wrongful convictions. By some estimates, we could have tens of thousands of innocent people in prisons nationwide. According to the University of Michigan annual report on exonerations, 2015 reached a record number of 149 exonerations. These are convictions that couldn’t stand the light of day, couldn’t hold up to an impartial, independent review.
Heidelberg’s defense team is justified in wanting an independent review of the case. Don Jackson, one of the defense attorneys, wants a judicial integrity unit established either in Peoria or one that serves Central Illinois. He estimates there are hundreds of cases in Peoria like the Heidelberg case that went through the system with the presumption of guilt unless proven innocent.
Jackson and the American notion of justice call for innocent until proven guilty.

“At one time, if an African American was arrested for a crime, the investigation stopped,” Jackson said, adding that the “presumption of guilt until proven innocent” continues today in many cases.

A leader in the Ward Chapel AME Church said, “Everyone in the black community knew Cleve Heidelberg was innocent (in 1970).”
That should send a chill through this entire community. It means in 1970, there was widespread belief among African Americans that the judicial system was biased against black men. There is no reason to think today is dramatically better. A judicial integrity unit could help restore justice to a judicial system that’s supposed to function for everyone.

A judicial integrity unit serving Peoria would be a fitting, hard-won legacy for the Heidelberg case. (Clare Howard)

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