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Wrongfully convicted are exonerated until proven innocent

In the movies, on television, in the papers -- wherever we turn it seems that the goal of a wrongfully convicted man or woman is exoneration. The term has come to mean not just that the guilty verdict has been overturned but that this man or woman has been proven innocent. Exoneration has become synonymous with having your name cleared and the slate wiped clean.

Two recent Cook County cases prove otherwise. Exoneration may be a "get out of jail free" card, but it is not a "get on with your life and put this all behind you" card. Clearing your name will take a few more steps. In Illinois, exoneration does not necessarily establish innocence.

The first case seems to be on track for a happy ending for the former inmate. In 1980, Daniel Andersen was accused of the murder and attempted rape of a friend of his. He confessed, but only after spending 16 hours or more in police custody. He has steadfastly maintained his innocence since the trial.

Convicted and sentenced to 55 years in prison, Andersen was released in 2007. Rebuilding his life, however, was not easy: Attempted rape is a sex crime. He was out of prison, but he was a registered sex offender.

Andersen's conviction rested in part on a knife that he had told his interrogators was the murder weapon. Prosecutors said the blood on the knife belonged to the victim. However, recent tests -- much more sophisticated DNA testing than what was available in 1980 -- showed that neither Anderson's nor the victim's blood was on the knife. The tests showed, too, that his DNA was not connected to other physical evidence.

The court set aside the conviction and ordered a new trial (a procedural step). In light of the DNA evidence, the State's Attorney decided to dismiss the charges.

That overturned conviction and the dismissed charges, however, do not take Andersen off the sex offender registry. Andersen has not quite established his innocence. We'll explain in our next post.

Source: Chicago Tribune, "Cook County prosecutors won't try ex-inmate after conviction dropped," Steve Schmadeke, Aug. 13, 2015

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