A recent discovery revealed that Chicago police have been warehousing thousands of homicide files dating back to the 1940’s, likely in violation of their own departmental policies and the law. The undisclosed files could potentially implicate a huge number of cases where Brady violations may have occurred.
The existence of around 19 cabinets of files in the basement at the Chicago Area Central station first emerged when attorneys for Nathson Fields, a former gang member who was convicted of murder and sentenced to death in 1984, were granted access to undisclosed evidence.
We wrote about Fields’ case previously here.
According to the Chicago Tribune, Fields’ attorneys gained access to the cabinets by arguing that Chicago police had suppressed a “street file” on the case. The street file was discovered and included “dozens of pages of detectives’ notes, lineup reports and records… not included in the official investigative file turned over in discovery.” The records included evidence that Fields would have been able to use at trial to challenge the credibility of a key informant who testified against him. But it wasn’t just Fields’ file that the attorneys found…
Jason Meisner at the Chicago Tribune writes:
After winning a federal judge’s permission last year to inspect the filing cabinet, Fields’ attorneys were stunned to find hundreds of homicide investigations dating as far back as the 1940s, some labeled “open” even though suspects had been prosecuted.
Fields’ attorneys think his missing file was just the tip of the iceberg:
An inventory of the cabinets might provide proof that for decades Chicago police handed over only a sanitized version of its investigative files before trial, withholding information that could have helped defendants serving long prison sentences, according to the attorneys.
Police began looking at the files after the discovery was made, but lawyers from the Cook County public defender’s office have asked for a joint review.
“If the city does the cataloguing alone, there will be limited trust that the result is full and accurate,” Winston wrote. “Using a transparent method will satisfy attorneys for defendants and also satisfy public opinion.”
The warehoused files have also been an important revelation to Juan Rivera, who is suing the city for his 1988 wrongful conviction (discussed previously here.) Rivera successfully argued for police to stop examining and culling files in the cabinets until a judge could decide whether his attorney should be involved in the review.
Attorneys involved in the project are asking for all the homicide files to be scanned electronically.