Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

Wrongful Convictions Prove Costly, Especially for the Wrongly Convicted

by Matt Clarke

On June 6, 2011, the Better Government Association (BGA) and the Center on Wrongful Convictions (CWC) at Northwestern University School of Law released a joint report on the cost of wrongful convictions. The report, which examined 85 wrongful convictions in Illinois since the advent of modern DNA testing in 1989, is the first study to examine the economic and societal costs of convicting the innocent.

The people who paid the highest price for wrongful convictions were the 83 men and 2 women who spent a total of 926 years in prison for crimes they did not commit. Some have received varying amounts of monetary compensation for the loss of years of their lives, but others struggle to find work and many suffer from chronic physical and mental illness. None said they felt whole after being released.

“The anger never goes away,” remarked Alton Logan, who served 26 years in prison after being wrongly convicted of homicide. His case was overturned in 2009 only because the man who actually committed the murder, a convicted cop killer, gave his lawyer a sworn confession which the attorney was prevented from making public until he was released from attorney-client privilege by the man’s death.

Logan received $40,000 in compensation from the Illinois Court of Claims – about $30 per week of incarceration. He also filed a federal lawsuit against Chicago police officials, including former police Lt. Jon Burge, who is serving a 4½-year sentence for lying about torturing suspects into giving confessions. Logan’s suit remains pending, with the district court granting in part and denying in part the defendants’ motion for summary judgment in April 2012. See: Logan v. Burge, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Ill.), Case No. 1:09-cv-05471.

In another federal lawsuit, Jerry Miller, an honorably discharged Army veteran wrongfully convicted of rape, robbery and assault who spent 25 years in prison, received a $6.3 million settlement in 2010. See: Miller v. Lenz, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Ill.), Case No. 1:08-cv-00773.

Miller alleged that the Chicago police crime lab had withheld evidence that would have cleared him; he was convicted based largely on mistaken eyewitness identification. Miller served his entire sentence and was cleared by DNA testing while on parole. His case was the 200th exoneration in the nation based on DNA evidence and the 27th in Illinois, according to the Innocence Project.

The cost of compensation – including settlements and awards in lawsuits filed by the wrongly convicted – is an expense that taxpayers must pay. The BGA/CWC study reported over $164 million in payments in the 85 wrongful conviction cases examined, plus $31.6 million in attorney fees. Additionally, taxpayers had to foot $18.5 million in incarceration costs for locking up people who were later exonerated. Thus, the total price tag for the wrongful conviction cases was estimated at $214 million, though the actual cost may reach $300 million after 16 pending lawsuits are resolved, including Logan’s.

High as the monetary costs may be, there are people who pay an even higher price for wrongful convictions – the victims of subsequent crimes committed by the actual perpetrators. After all, when someone is wrongly convicted, the real criminal remains free to commit more crimes. The BGA/CWC study reported that the actual perpetrators in some of the wrongful conviction cases (who were identified based on the same DNA evidence used to exonerate the innocent) went on to commit at least 94 felonies, including 11 sexual assaults and 14 murders.

“These numbers are dramatically high,” said Thomas P. Sullivan, a former U.S. Attorney who chaired the Illinois Capital Punishment Reform Study Committee. “If they are correct, or anywhere near correct, it certainly is another indication of why special care is needed in these prosecutions to avoid convicting someone who is innocent and failing to convict someone who is guilty.”

Yet police officials, prosecutors and the state’s own experts were largely responsible for the wrongful convictions. According to the BGA/CWC report, misconduct or errors by public officials contributed to 81 of the 85 wrongful convictions. The study found misconduct or mistakes by police in 66 cases, by prosecutors in 44 cases and by the prosecution’s forensic experts in 29 cases (more than one type of misconduct or error may have occurred in each case).

Cook County Judge Tommy Brewer noted that such misconduct “remind[s] us that what we call the criminal justice system is often anything but just. And to the extent justice is lacking in our criminal justice system, it is not because of human frailties but often the deliberate malfeasance of those we entrust to run the system.”

The BGA/CWC report noted that in many of the cases, the actual perpetrator was never investigated even when the police had clues to his identity. One possible reason for this was a fear by police officials that investigating the actual perpetrator after a wrongful conviction had been discovered could reveal evidence of police incompetence or misconduct that would prove damaging in subsequent lawsuits.

The BGA/CWC study recommended banning testimony by jailhouse informants, videotaping all interrogations related to violent crimes, reforming lineup procedures to reduce errors and increasing the transparency of investigations into police abuses as ways to help prevent future wrongful convictions.

Sources: New York Times, Chicago Tribune,,

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login

Related legal cases

Logan v. Burge

Miller v. Lenz