Posts Tagged ‘Michael Mermel’

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.

Advertisements

We’ve been looking at different instances in which police and prosecutors have resisted what science says about traditional police investigative tactics such as eyewitness identification, suspect interrogation, and basic forensics.  But there is no one who personifies this better than Michael Mermel, a former Lake County, Illinois assistant prosecutor.

Recall that the National Academy of Sciences’ report on forensics, Strengthening Forensic Science in the United Sates: A Path Forward (2009), says that most forensic science isn’t science in the true sense of the word.  There are two exceptions, however, that deserve all the scientific respect we can muster: chemical analysis and DNA testing.

This is especially so for DNA testing, which has undergone repeated scientific study and validation.  The result is a scientific tool for law enforcement of unprecedented strength and precision.

Everyone seems to know this already — except for former prosecutor Michael Mermel.

Mermel was, until he recently resigned, a prosecutor in Lake County, Illinois.  When DNA from some of his homicide cases has been tested, and it has shown that those he has convicted were not guilty, Mermel took a novel approach.  Most prosecutors in this situation would drop the case or ask a court to reverse a previous conviction.  Not Mermel.  For example, when semen from one of two young female victims in a murder case did not match the defendant, Mermel denied that this had any relevance to the charge, and refused to take any action.  Since he had not brought sexual assault charges, the case had nothing to do with evidence of sex crimes.  But more than that, Mermel told the Chicago Tribune that the DNA simply had nothing to do with anything.

It is such a goofy logic leap [that] because somewhere in her life she came into contact with a sperm cell it means she was sexually assaulted,” Mermel said. “To take this leap that this is the identity of the mystery killer, I don’t know where everybody gets this idea.

Instead, he suggested, the victim probably picked up the semen playing in the woods, where couples go to have sex.

There you have it: DNA, the most powerful scientific tool law enforcement has ever had, means nothing.

Does anyone know a story that can top Michael Mermel’s tale, for resistance to science?  I’d like to hear it.