Jasper McLaurin had served two years in prison when the Illinois Appellate Court threw out his gun conviction. His long wait for that decision — twice as long as the American Bar Association says appeals in criminal cases should take — didn’t end with him walking out of prison in 2018. He remains in prison, reports the Chicago Sun-Times, serving a seven-year sentence for carrying a handgun police found when they pulled him over for a traffic stop. Prosecutors appealed his acquittal to the Illinois Supreme Court. As the clock keeps ticking, McLaurin remains behind bars. “People are wasting away in jail, waiting for their appeals,” says Steve Greenberg, McLaurin’s attorney.
In Cook County, defendants like McLaurin wait longer for an appellate decision than anywhere in Illinois. About two-thirds of these appeals take longer than two years. One in 10 appeals take longer than three years. Fully one-third of defendants who appeal eventually prevail — with an outright acquittal, an order for a new trial or a modification of their sentence. “If you want reform, you want to end misconduct and stop wrongful convictions, you have to pay attention to the appeals,” says Stephen Richards, a defense lawyer who has successfully appealed 11 murder convictions. “The appellate system keeps everyone honest.” Because of the glacial pace of deciding appeals, some defendants end up completing prison sentences before courts rule on their cases. Karl Leonard of The Exoneration Project at the University of Chicago Law School says long delays in appeals harm defendants and victims of crimes alike. “Every day, whether it is because someone is searching for a file in a warehouse or because they don’t have time to write a reply, is a day that they spend in prison separated from their family,” he says.