CLOSE ENCOUNTERS of the First Kind

By Sullivan, Thomas P. | Judicature, January/February 2004 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

CLOSE ENCOUNTERS of the First Kind

Sullivan, Thomas P., Judicature

A first-hand look at wrongful convictions, how they occur, and what they cost.

Editor's note: This article is adapted from remarks delivered at the National Conference on Preventing the Conviction of Innocent Persons held January 16-19, 2003 in Washington, D.C.

More than 20 years ago, when I was a prosecutor during the Carter administration, I personally encountered a case of a wrongfully accused and convicted person. This happened to be a civil rather than a criminal case but it had the same kinds of results.

A man named Frank Walus had come from Poland to the United States. He was the subject of a citizen denaturalization proceeding because he had been a guard at the Nazi prison camp at Czestochowa, Poland. The case was tried before Judge Julius Hoffman of Conspiracy Seven fame, or infamy. Unfortunately for Mr. Walus, it was a bench trial that resulted in Judge Hoffman revoking Mr. Walus' citizenship, which would eventually lead to his deportation. (453 F. Supp. 9 699 (N.D. IL 1978)).

The case went to the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. The judges there were uneasy about the evidence and sent it back for retrial. (616 F.2d 283 (7th Cir. 1980)). It was then reinvestigated. There was a special unit at the Department of Justice in Washington that handled these cases. They discovered very quickly, by walking down the street in the town that Mr. Walus said he was in at the time of the second World War, that he indeed was working on a farm. He wasn't at this camp.

But the result of suggestive identifications that Nazi hunters had done, showing only his photograph to people 25 and 30 years later and suggesting that he was the person that had abused them in the camp, resulted in a lot of people coming to court in Chicago, many of them from Florida; elderly Jewish people saying, in perfect good faith, "Yes, that was the man, I remember him, I'll never forget him."

When we finally dismissed the case, I brought him into my office and personally apologized and issued a press release explaining what had happened. But by that time he had lost his wife who had divorced him. His children wouldn't speak to him anymore. He'd lost his job. He had no income and no assets, and it was not possible to undue the harm that had been done to Mr. Walus because of that wrongful prosecution. So I have, in Spielberg's terms, close encounters of the first kind with wrongful convictions.

How many more?

In Illinois, less than 2 percent of the felony cases result in a death penalty. We have now had 16 men who were sentenced to death released from prison. This necessarily raises the question, how many more are there in jail in non-death cases that are not guilty of the crimes for which they were convicted?

Unlike the death cases, these other cases don't, get the kind of post-conviction scrutiny that death cases do. They are not publicised. People go to jail and do their time. They write to lawyers like me. I get letters all the time from prisoners asking me to help them. I don't do anything about that anymore. I used to as a young lawyer, but I don't anymore. But the injustice that is visited upon these people is not the penalty itself but the fact that the conviction needs to be remedied.

No right thinking person wants to convict somebody for a crime he didn't commit. I know that in the audience we have not only defense lawyers and prosecutors, but policemen as well. I know that almost all policemen are dedicated, wonderful people who certainly are not in the business of trying to get someone convicted for a crime he didn't commit. But the problem all of us face in the criminal justice system, and this includes defense lawyers, judges, prosecutors, and police, is what's called confirmatory bias. Once we conclude that a particular person is the culprit, we seek evidence to support that conclusion. And we tend to try to explain away evidence that leads away from that conclusion.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

CLOSE ENCOUNTERS of the First Kind


Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?