DNA Access Law to be Expanded in Illinois


Legislation to expand Illinois’ postconviction DNA testing access law to inmates that have pleaded guilty is expected to be signed by the governor before the close of this session. The bill, which has already been approved by the Senate and the House, acknowledges that innocent defendants sometimes plead guilty to avoid a severe punishment.


The Chicago Tribune reported that Philip McDowell, who has spent two decades in prison maintaining his innocence for a 1989 fatal stabbing, is poised to be the first person to take advantage of the new law. McDowell says he pleaded guilty after courtroom deputies beat him and he feared he would be assaulted in Cook County Jail.


According to the National Registry of Exonerations, a little more than 10% of 1,378 people pleaded guilty before seeing their convictions overturned and of those 145 exonerations, DNA evidence cleared 29 of them—four of which took place in Cook County.


State Sen. Kwame Raoul, the Chicago Democrat who sponsored the bill, said that although he doesn’t expect many inmates to meet the law’s requirement that there be “reasonable probability” that DNA testing would have led to an acquittal at trial, the legislation is still worthwhile.


“I think it’s important that, as we look at criminal justice reform, that we don’t just do it for the big hits,” he said. “Even if there’s not a huge number, it’s worth doing if you have somebody in prison who may not have committed the crime they pled guilty to.”


Joseph Freeman Pankey was found stabbed in a motel after he and McDowell had driven from Alabama to Illinois in a car to be sold at an auto auction. McDowell never confessed to the murder, and no physical evidence linked him to the crime. Court records showing that he was taken to the jail hospital for bruising and abrasions confirm his claims that he was beaten by deputies. Fearing the death penalty, McDowell entered a plea even though his lawyer never made a deal in exchange for an admission of guilt. He was sentenced to 60 years in prison and soon after tried to withdraw his guilty plea. 


Once Gov. Pat Quinn signs, Illinois will become the 45th state to allow inmates who pleaded guilty to seek DNA testing.


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