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Dean Cage, Wrongfully Convicted Based on Eyewitness ID Practices that Are Still in Place Today, Is Exonerated in Chicago with DNA

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Cage was convicted of a 1994 Chicago rape that DNA proves he did not commit

(CHICAGO, IL; May 28, 2008) – DNA tests prove that Dean Cage did not commit a 1994 Chicago rape for which he was wrongfully convicted, according to the Innocence Project, which represents him. Cage, who was convicted in 1996 and sentenced to 40 years in prison, was released from prison late last night.

In November 1994, a 15-year-old girl was raped on her way to school in Chicago. Cage was convicted based largely on the victim’s eyewitness misidentification. The victim helped police prepare a composite sketch of her attacker, which was circulated in the neighborhood where the crime occurred. When police received a tip that a man resembling the sketch worked at a local meat market, they took the victim to the market and she identified Cage. Later, at the police station, the victim identified Cage based on the sound of his voice. He was convicted in 1996.

In late 2006, the Cook County State Attorney’s office agreed to conduct DNA testing in the case and cooperated on the testing. DNA testing on the rape kit and clothing worn by the victim shows that Cage was not the perpetrator.

Cage is the 29th person in Illinois who has been exonerated through DNA testing. Only Texas, with 31, has had more DNA exonerations. Twenty-five of the DNA exonerations in Illinois were in Cook County – more than any other county in the nation (by comparison, 14 people have been fully exonerated through DNA testing in Dallas County, Texas). Cage is the 217th person exonerated through post-conviction DNA testing nationwide.

In July 2007, the Illinois Legislature passed a bill to create a commission that would study non-capital wrongful conviction cases and develop reforms to make the criminal justice system more fair and accurate. The commission is similar to one established in 2002 to address capital cases in Illinois. That commission was formed after several people were taken off of Illinois’ death row because they were innocent or their convictions were questionable. After meeting for two years, that commission issued 85 recommendations and the Illinois Legislature passed several reforms that were mostly geared toward capital cases.

Given the high number of DNA exonerations in non-capital cases, the Illinois Legislature created the broader commission last year. The legislation requires the commission to issue a final report with recommendations by the end of this year – but members of the commission still have not been appointed and the legislature has not funded the commission.

“Since 2000, the nation has looked to Illinois as a leader on reforming its criminal justice system in the wake of exonerations. The state made important and historic progress toward making the system more fair and accurate in capital cases, but it has so far fallen short in other cases – which are the vast majority of convictions and wrongful convictions,” said Peter Neufeld, Co-Director of the Innocence Project, which is affiliated with Cardozo School of Law. “The Illinois Legislature should fund this commission and members should be appointed immediately. If this commission were operating as it’s supposed to, it could help prevent a substantial number of wrongful convictions and restore confidence in the state’s criminal justice system.”

Eyewitness misidentification, which was a factor in more than 75% of all wrongful convictions overturned by DNA testing nationwide, is among the most critical issues for the commission to address, Neufeld said. In Cage’s case, the police detective who ran the investigation of the rape also handled the eyewitness identification procedures. Research and experience have shown that “blind administration” of identification procedures (which means the officer administering the identification procedure does not know who the suspect is) sharply reduces the risk of misidentification. When Cage was arrested, Illinois did not require blind administration of identification procedures – and the state still doesn’t require it, despite a growing consensus within the social science and law enforcement communities that this simple reform is highly effective.

“Dean Cage should never have been convicted of this crime and shouldn’t have lost 14 years of his life to a wrongful arrest and conviction. Perhaps most chilling is the reality that people across Illinois are still being wrongfully convicted based on eyewitness misidentification that could be prevented if the state enacted simple, straightforward reforms that are proven to work,” said Alba Morales, Staff Attorney at the Innocence Project. North Carolina, New Jersey and Wisconsin have already implemented statewide reforms – including blind administration of identification procedures – to improve the accuracy of eyewitness identification.

Cage said today that he stands ready to help legislators understand the urgent need for reforms to prevent wrongful convictions. Now 41 years old, he plans to live with his mother in Chicago while he begins to rebuild his life. Under Illinois law, he is eligible to receive compensation from the state for his wrongful incarceration – but several people who have been exonerated in recent years still have not been compensated. Under current law, people who have been exonerated must have a pardon from the governor in order to receive compensation. The Illinois Legislature is currently considering a bill that would allow wrongfully convicted people to receive compensation without a pardon from the governor; the bill would also slightly increase the amount of money people can receive and would provide some services (job training and education) from the state. Under the current law, Cage is eligible for a total of up to $150,000 for the 14 years he was wrongfully incarcerated.

The Innocence Project, which is affiliated with Cardozo School of Law, represents Cage. Innocence Project Staff Attorney Alba Morales handled Cage’s case with Neufeld. The Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University is co-counsel on the case. The law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges provided pro bono assistance on the case. Orchid-Cellmark handled DNA testing in the case.