Michael Mermel, formerly a lawyer in the State’s Attorney’s office in Lake County, Illinois, became famous as a the prototypical prosecutor resisting science — even DNA. Readers will remember Mr. Mermel from my post “Resistance, Thy Name is Mermel” back in June of 2012. When DNA results in four of the office’s cases did not support the guilty verdicts, Mermel made clear that the DNA results meant nothing to him. Mermel eventually resigned from the office after telling The Chicago Tribune: “The taxpayers don’t pay us for intellectual curiosity. They pay us to get convictions.” Mermel’s boss, State’s Attorney Michael Waller, was replaced after the last election by Mike Nerheim, who made restoring the damaged integrity of the office one of his top priorities.
Now Nerheim has acted. He has appointed a special “case review board” to examine possible cases of wrongful convictions. In a video clip posted on YouTube, Nerheim explained that since “Lake County, Illinois, unfortunately, has been identified as having an issue with wrongful convictions,” he had appointed a panel of “independent” lawyers All of the six appointees “have no ties to these cases or to the office.” According to Nerheim, an independent “fresh set of eyes” was critical in order to “restore the public’s trust and confidence in the State’s Attorney’s Office.”
For making integrity of convictions a high priority for his office, Mr. Nerheim deserves credit and applause. The only thing that seems off is the make up of the case review board. According to The Chicago Tribune, four of the six members are former prosecutors; one of these four was a prosecutor in the Lake County office. Without in any way impugning the integrity of the board members, their backgrounds may cause members of the community to perceive the board as less than fair — that the deck is stacked deck in favor of the prosecution. I take no position on whether this is true or not; the concern is that if the function of this very worthy panel is to restore trust and integrity, some citizens of Lake County may be less than fully impressed with the independence of the group. One possible remedy would be to do what DA Craig Watkins has done with his Conviction Integrity Unit in Dallas: he has made the Texas Innocence Project an integral part of the Unit’s work.
Still, it’s important to congratulate Mr. Nerheim and everyone he serves in Lake County, Illinois. Now things can start to get better, even if they aren’t perfect.