CHICAGO – The Exoneration Project, a Chicago-based organization dedicated to providing legal assistance to the wrongfully convicted, has sued the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office (CCSAO) under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act. The lawsuit seeks access to DNA “hit notifications,” which may provide information that could identify and free innocent prisoners.
A DNA hit notification is generated when DNA collected from a crime scene matches a convicted offender or arrestee in the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS). There are over 19 million DNA profiles currently in CODIS, including over one million unidentified samples collected from crime scenes. When a person is convicted of a crime, by law that offender’s DNA profile is added to CODIS and compared to the crime scene samples in CODIS. If there is a hit, the Illinois State Police, which has access to CODIS, then sends a hit notification to the applicable prosecuting agency, like the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office.
Sometimes when a newly convicted offender’s DNA is added to CODIS, it hits to crime scene evidence from a different, earlier crime for which a different person was convicted. This can be potentially powerful evidence of innocence. Indeed, the Exoneration Project’s lawsuit points to examples where such hits have resulted in innocent men being set free after being wrongfully convicted and imprisoned. Yet, the lawsuit alleges, after receiving the hit notifications the CCSAO does not disclose the information to the individual convicted of the offense.
Matt Topic, a FOIA attorney at Loevy & Loevy and representing the EP in this case, states why this information ought to be disclosed to the public: “The General Assembly has made clear that the purpose of FOIA is to allow the public to monitor government to ensure that it is being conducted in the public interest. It is difficult to imagine many situations where that purpose is more imperative than ensuring that law enforcement is not withholding exonerating information from people who may have been wrongfully convicted.”
The CCSAO has acknowledged that it has been receiving DNA hit notifications since 2016. The Exoneration Project’s lawsuit does not seek monetary damages; it simply seeks a copy of the hit notifications in the custody of the CCSAO in order to investigate potential claims of innocence.
“Given Chicago’s long and troubling history of wrongful convictions, often established through DNA evidence, the public release of this information is vital,” said Joshua Tepfer, an attorney with the Exoneration Project who has represented many wrongfully convicted individuals. “An examination of these DNA hit notifications could reveal that there are innocent people sitting in prison for other people’s crimes.”