The wrongful conviction of Andre Davis for a murder he did not commit should give us all pause.
It's no secret that wrongful convictions and grotesque miscarriages of justice occur from time to time in various parts of this country. Now that horror has struck in Champaign County.
On July 6, Andre Davis, twice convicted of a 1980 murder in Rantoul, was released from the super-maximum security prison in Tamms following a decision by local prosecutors not to retry him.
It wasn't as if retrying Davis was a viable option. New DNA evidence shows that it was another man, not Davis, who was responsible for the rape and suffocation death of 3-year-old Brianna Stickel. It was just that the time for stalling Davis' release had finally expired, and authorities had no choice but to let him go.
Age 19 when he was arrested, Davis is now 51. He's been robbed of 32 years of his life, just as Brianna was robbed of all of the remainder of her life. The real killer remains free, his whereabouts unknown. How could the situation be any worse?
Two issues stand out in this disastrous set of circumstances:
— Why did the judicial system move so slowly to set things straight after authorities discovered DNA recovered from the crime scene did not come from Davis?
— What is the likelihood that prosecutors will be able to build a case against the killer?
Authorities learned in 2004 that the DNA left at the crime scene did not come from Davis. It came from Maurice Tucker, who was a prosecution witness against Davis in his two trials.
Instead of moving to correct the error eight years ago, lawyers from the local state's attorney's office and state attorney general's office fought to preserve Davis' conviction every step of the way until finally throwing in the towel a couple of months ago.
The judicial system is an adversarial system. In Davis' case, prosecutors fought to preserve this wrongful conviction at all costs, and that's a problem.
Since there was no dispute about the nature of the new DNA evidence, there had to be a better way to address Davis' case.
Unfortunately, prosecutors can be loath to admit error no matter how clear the facts.
This case was further complicated when Champaign County Associate Judge Charles "Chase" Leonhard declined in 2011 to overturn Davis' conviction because he said jurors would have convicted Davis even if they had known about the new DNA evidence.
That moronic conclusion was unanimously overturned by the appellate court, setting the stage for Davis' release. But correcting errors like that take time, and time is valuable when you're waiting behind bars.
No one but the prosecutors, however, can be blamed for some of the arguments they made to keep Davis locked up. Most offensive and disappointing was the prosecutorial argument that Davis was not entitled to a hearing on the DNA evidence because he had waited too long to petition the courts.
Davis was held in Tamms, a facility where inmates spend 23 hours a day in their cells. He had no money to hire a lawyer and no lawyer at all until volunteers from the Northwestern University Center on Wrongful Convictions stepped forward on his behalf. How could prosecutors — in good conscience and with a straight face — argue that Davis should be denied a hearing because he was tardy?
They did it because they forgot that a prosecutor's job is to do the right thing. Instead, they wanted to win, no matter what the cost to even the most rudimentary concept of justice. That's shameful.
Like any system devised and run by human beings, the judicial system is subject to error. The first step to correcting errors is to recognize the possibility of committing them and then moving with dispatch when they are discovered.
What's next in this criminal case? In a perfect world, prosecutors would file charges and prosecute the man whose DNA was found at the crime. But this is the real world, the crime occurred 32 years ago, some witnesses have died and some evidence has been lost.
Rantoul Police Chief Paul Farber said that he met this past week with Champaign County State's Attorney Julia Rietz and that his department is trying to put together a new case against a new suspect.
"We're considering it a live case," said Farber, who indicated that it will be a challenge because of all the time that has passed.
"We're beginning to piece things back together," said Farber.
Can all the pieces be put back together? Most assuredly not. But maybe enough of them can be.
University of Illinois law Professor Steve Beckett said local prosecutors will have to examine their evidence and decide "whether the strengths outweigh the weakness."
He said the case has one major strength.
"(DNA evidence) is just a huge smoking gun. ... It's the best fingerprint evidence ever invented," he said.
But he said it's open to question whether prosecutors will be able to meet the necessary evidentiary standards to get the DNA evidence before a jury.
He said the major question is whether prosecutors can "lay the foundation for the admission of DNA in the new case."
Beckett said that to present a strong case prosecutors must "tell a cohesive story" and that the passage of time "undermines a cohesive story."
So there is much uncertainty about the status of a new investigation. But there is no question about what's happened so far — it's been a horror story for all concerned.