In St Clair County, Illinois, the local prosecutor is trying a radical new experiment: admitting his office has charged innocent people with crimes and clearing their names before they spend a day in prison, reported The BBC. It's a unique reform effort as prosecutors around the country face increased scrutiny and diminishing public trust.
The new program created by St Clair County State's Attorney Brendan Kelly: the Actual Innocence Claim Policy and Protocol. It is a unique, pre-conviction intervention which attempts to prevent the "actually innocent" from going through a trial, taking a plea deal, or ending up in prison.
Actual innocence is a legal concept which means, simply, that a defendant did not commit the crime of which he or she is accused. It is usually invoked when a prison inmate is attempting to appeal his sentence, but Kelly wanted to bring the spirit of the concept to the pre-conviction level.
"That's distinct from 'I didn't get treated fairly'," says Kelly, a Navy veteran who became the county's top law enforcement officer in 2010 when he was only 34 years old. "It's not, 'Some of the evidence was obtained unlawfully, there was an incorrect ruling by the court, on the trial level some error by the defense' - no, you actually have the wrong person here...they're actually innocent."
Since Kelly implemented the policy two years ago, nine defendants have had their charges dropped before trial. Those cases include a reckless homicide by vehicle, four armed robberies and one murder.
To the best of his knowledge, no other prosecutor in the country is attempting anything quite like it. Even the US Department of Justice has taken an interest in what is happening in St Clair County.
"I think it is a nightmare scenario for any prosecutor or any police officer to have investigated and prosecuted and convicted the wrong person," says Kelly. "That strikes at our very sense of what our job is all about, which is to seek justice."
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