COVID-19 Delays Inmates’ Innocence Probes

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Illinois prisoners Wayne Antusas and Nicholas Morfin have been approaching a potential turning point in their cases: a chance to argue their innocence in a 1995 double murder. The evidence has shifted since their convictions for helping to plan a Chicago gang shooting. A key witness changed his testimony to say the men weren’t involved, the admitted shooter said there was no plan for the attack, and prosecutors dropped charges against a man accused of ordering the killings. It’s unclear whether Antusas and Morfin will have hearings soon. Innocence claims such as theirs are among many legal matters delayed by the spread of COVID-19, which has brought the court system to a virtual halt while elevating the danger of sitting in prison or jail, the Chicago Tribune reports.

Last year, Illinois led the nation in exonerations with 30. The state has cleared more than 300 convicts over three decades, says the National Registry of Exonerations. With coronavirus gaining a foothold in the jail and prison system, prisoners who may have been wrongfully accused or convicted could remain stuck behind bars and in harm’s way, just like the guilty. The pandemic has made it hard to even investigate claims of innocence. While some legal work transitions easily to a home office, innocence claims often depend on interviews and other kinds of shoe-leather work that is now nearly impossible. Attorney Joshua Tepfer represents people who say they were railroaded by former Chicago detective Reynaldo Guevara. More than a dozen convictions have been tossed since mid-2016. Tepfer, of the Exoneration Project at University of Chicago Law School, says, “We can’t talk to these witnesses, we can’t do anything on these cases, we had a lot of clients who finally might have had their hopes up.”

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