The Conviction Integrity Unit (the “CIU”) investigates claims of actual innocence, to determine whether new evidence gives rise to a substantial probability that the convicted defendant was not the person who committed the offense of conviction. CIU makes recommendations to the Cook County State’s Attorney about the appropriate remedy (if any) that should result from its findings. The State’s Attorney of Cook County makes all final decisions about whether a remedy should be provided to a person seeking review by the CIU.
The CIU is not a court and its work is not governed by court rules of procedure. CIU investigates claims of actual innocence based on new evidence; it does not function as a “13th juror” to review factual questions that already have been decided by a jury. Its mission is to determine whether new evidence shows that an innocent person has been wrongfully convicted for a crime, and to recommend steps to rectify such situations.
Overview of Procedures
This overview outlines the approach CIU usually takes in cases brought to its attention. Depending on the circumstances of a case, CIU may use a different approach suited to the unique facts of a specific case.
Who can petition the CIU for review?
Any living person, or the authorized representative of a living person, convicted of any felony charge[s] in Cook County is eligible to seek review by CIU.
What kinds of cases are eligible for review by CIU?
CIU investigates claims that meet two essential criteria. First, the claimant must assert “actual innocence,” which means that there must be conclusive evidence available showing that the defendant was wrongfully convicted. Second, the claim of actual innocence must be based on evidence that was not considered by the trier of fact during the proceedings that led to conviction. Both of these elements usually must be present before CIU opens its investigation into a case.
CIU also may investigate claims of actual innocence based on a showing that the investigative or fact-finding process that led to the conviction was so fundamentally flawed that the guilty verdict cannot reasonably be relied upon as accurate. CIU ordinarily does not consider such claims if all the evidence said to support the claim previously has been considered and rejected by a court at trial or on direct appeal. Further, because the focus of CIU is on actual innocence, it usually investigates cases alleging flaws in the investigation or prosecution of a defendant only where there is substantial reason to conclude that the defendant is actually innocent.
Are there kinds of cases that CIU will decline to investigate?
Yes. Because its focus is on claims that could exonerate a defendant from any role in an offense, CIU does not investigate claims that newly discovered evidence supports an affirmative defense, such as consent, self-defense, or lack of intent. Similarly, CIU will not consider claims that a decision to prosecute was the product of over-charging or that a sentence was unfairly harsh.
Will CIU consider a claim where a defendant pled guilty?
Yes, a defendant whose conviction resulted from a plea of guilty in the Circuit Court of Cook County is eligible for consideration by the CIU. As noted, however, CIU only investigates claims by a person who asserts actual innocence, which requires that the claimant must have no criminal responsibility for the crime of conviction. Further, because a plea of guilty avoids the need for a trial and the testing of evidence through an adversarial process, both the evidence supporting a claim of actual innocence and the circumstances giving rise to the guilty plea are given a heightened level of scrutiny.
Must I solve the case in order to get relief?
No. CIU exists to correct convictions of innocent people. A person can get relief even if the true offender never is identified or prosecuted for the crime.
Who can file a claim with CIU? Must a lawyer be involved?
Any person can file a claim with CIU. It may be filed by the defendant who was convicted of an offense, by a family member or friend of the defendant, or by a lawyer acting on behalf of the defendant. So long as the defendant authorizes the filing, CIU will accept claims from any source. A claim will receive attention regardless of whether it is submitted by a lawyer.
How is a claim filed?
CIU has prepared a useful form that can be found on the website of the Cook County State’s Attorney here. Although CIU will accept any writing that provides the necessary information, claimants are encouraged to use the CIU form, or to provide the data requested by the CIU form on a written document. CIU requires that claims must be brought to its attention in a written document, sent to the CIU through the U.S. Mail or an e-mail (sent to firstname.lastname@example.org). CIU will not consider claims presented through telephone calls. Claims can be submitted to:
Conviction Integrity Unit
2650 S. California Blvd.
Chicago, IL 60608
When can a claim be filed?
A claim can be filed with CIU at any time after the conviction is final; there is no requirement that the person be in custody when filing a claim. A person convicted of a felony in Cook County does not have to reside in Illinois to seek relief from CIU.
Is CIU part of the post-conviction process provided by Illinois law?
No. There are important differences between a review by CIU and a post-conviction petition, although both exist to prevent an unjust result.
The Illinois Post-Conviction Act (725 ILCS 5/122-1 et seq.) (the “PC Act”) gives convicted defendants an opportunity to show that their conviction was obtained in violation of a constitutional right, such as the right to be free from unlawful searches (the Fourth Amendment), the right to remain silent when questioned by police (the Fifth Amendment) or the right to a competent lawyer (the Sixth Amendment). The PC Act provides convicted defendants the ability to participate in a court action designed to prove violations of constitutional rights.
CIU was not created by statute, its investigations are not part of a court action, and it is not governed by court rules of procedure. CIU does not focus on determining whether important constitutional rights were violated, it focuses on determining whether an innocent person has been wrongfully convicted.
A convicted defendant may decide to use the PC Act to show that a conviction violates his or her constitutional right, a showing that could result in the grant of a new trial. CIU does not discourage any defendant from seeking relief under the PC Act. A defendant may decide to produce evidence to CIU showing that he or she is actually innocent, which could result in exoneration. Each convicted defendant should decide which of these two distinct paths is best for his or her situation.
Because PC Act petitions require the State’s Attorney’s Office to devote already-limited resources to court actions, it is inefficient for the Office to be engaged in two efforts simultaneously as to one individual. As such, before it takes action CIU determines whether a claimant currently is litigating a petition for relief under the Post-Conviction Act. If so, CIU will request that the claimant choose which action to pursue. If a claimant wants to proceed on a pending Post-Conviction action, CIU will not investigate a claim of actual innocence while that Post-Conviction action is proceeding. If a person agrees to withdraw, or stay, his or her court action under the PC Act, CIU will investigate the claim of actual innocence.
Who will investigate and evaluate the claim of actual innocence?
Claims brought to CIU are reviewed and investigated by Assistant State’s Attorneys and investigators assigned to the Conviction Integrity Unit. Consistent with its mission, CIU stands apart as an independent division within the State’s Attorney’s Office. It functions outside the Criminal Prosecutions Bureau and its recommendations will be brought directly to the Chief Ethics Officer at the State’s Attorney’s Office.
Each of the Assistant State’s Attorneys and investigators assigned to CIU has several years’ experience in the criminal justice system in Cook County. They work full-time in CIU and they will not be involved in the investigation or prosecution of any pending criminal cases. No Assistant State’s Attorney, police officer, or investigator who was involved in the prosecution of the case under review by CIU will play any role in the investigation of claims brought as to that prosecution, except to the extent that they are asked to provide information about the historical events of a case.
What will happen after CIU receives a claim of actual innocence?
CIU first reviews the claim to confirm the person’s eligibility for consideration. This means CIU evaluates the claim to confirm that it raises a claim of “actual innocence,” i.e., does it allege facts which, if true, would exonerate the defendant from the crime of conviction? CIU also reviews the procedural history of the case to find out whether the evidence on which the claim of innocence is based already has been considered by the court which imposed judgment.
After satisfying itself that the claim is eligible, CIU conducts an investigation into the newly available evidence and into the history of the case. CIU lawyers review available materials from the criminal proceedings that led to conviction, including police reports, trial transcripts and pleadings. CIU investigators locate and interview witnesses who are identified as supporting the claim of innocence. To the extent that a claim requires new or additional forensic analysis of items of physical evidence, arrangements are made to perform those tests where feasible.
CIU may seek to interview the claimant to further explore claims of actual innocence. CIU also may ask to interview the attorney[s] who represented the claimant during the circuit court (trial or guilty plea) proceedings. CIU will not request such interviews, however, unless the claimant makes a knowing and intelligent waiver of the rights protected by the Fifth and Sixth Amendments to the United States Constitution. A claimant may elect not to waive those rights. In such circumstances, CIU will investigate the factual claims to the greatest extent possible.
CIU operates on the expectation that the claimant has produced (or will voluntarily make available) all the evidence, documents, and information relevant to the claim of actual innocence that are in the possession or under the control of the claimant. CIU reaches decisions based on all the relevant information, and claimants who withhold information or who decide to release information in stages may be considered not to have participated in the review process in good faith.
CIU makes an effort to evaluate every claim of actual innocence brought to its attention. It cannot, however, give immediate investigative attention to every claim it receives. Regrettably but necessarily, some claims may need to wait while CIU investigates other claims.
How will I know what conclusions have been reached by CIU?
CIU is aware that claimants are anxious to know that their claim has been received, that it is being considered, and that they will be advised of the decisions reached by the State’s Attorney’s Office.
Upon receipt of a written claim, CIU conducts an initial screening process to determine whether the claim is eligible for consideration, based on the two criteria discussed above. If this initial review shows that the claim is not eligible, the claimant is notified in writing of that determination, and CIU takes no further action. If the review shows the claim is eligible for review, CIU will notify the claimant that it intends to investigate the factual merits of the claim.
Where appropriate, CIU will work with claimants or their counsel to pursue factual investigations. Claimants do not, however, enjoy an absolute right to have notice of all investigative activities or results obtained by CIU. Where necessary to protect the integrity of its investigation, CIU reserves the right to determine when investigative efforts and results should be disclosed.
Claimants will be informed of the conclusions reached by CIU about their claim. Further, claimants (and/or their authorized representatives) may request to meet with the Director of the CIU to discuss its conclusions and the recommendations CIU intends to forward to the Chief Ethics Officer.
What relief can be granted by CIU?
CIU evaluates, investigates and recommends, but the final decision whether to grant relief rests with the State’s Attorney of Cook County. Further, the nature or form of any relief likewise is a matter solely within the State’s Attorney’s discretion.
Where the investigation shows a substantial probability that the claimant is actually innocent of the charge of conviction, the CIU will recommend that the State’s Attorney’s Office should take steps to undo that conviction and vacate any resulting sentence. Depending on the particular circumstances of a given case, however, other remedies may be recommended.
If I disagree with the conclusions of the CIU investigation, what rights do I have for further review?
The existence of the Conviction Integrity Unit does not create or confer any “right” on those who bring claims of actual innocence. For this reason, there is no “right” to appeal its determinations. Claimants (or their representatives) who disagree with the conclusions of the CIU investigation may request an opportunity to speak with the executive staff members of the State’s Attorney’s Office, but whether to grant such a request is a matter solely within the discretion of the State’s Attorney’s Office.
Because CIU’s investigation is not part of a court proceeding, CIU’s decisions or recommendations do not prevent a claimant from raising the same claims of innocence in another forum, such as through a petition brought under the Illinois Post-Conviction Act. All claimants who file papers with CIU should be aware, however, that the evidence developed by CIU during its investigation will be shared with other units within the State’s Attorney’s Office.