Things aren’t always as they seem (reflections on Joe Gliniewicz, Patrick Kane, and wrongful convictions)

The September funeral for Fox Lake (Illinois) Lt. Joe Gliniewicz was attended by thousands, and his death was cited by some as emblematic of a “war on cops.” Gliniewicz is now being portrayed not as a brave police officer gunned down in the line of duty, but rather as a criminal who stole money from an after-school program and consciously staged his suicide to look like murder so as to cover up his misdeeds.

Many commentators called on the NHL to suspend Chicago hockey star Patrick Kane in August after he was accused of sexual assault in New York. Kane is currently attempting to return to normalcy on the ice now that his accuser has formally declined to prosecute. This development followed a bizarre incident in which the accuser’s mother allegedly made a false claim that a rape-kit bag had been tampered with.

I enjoy following a juicy news story as much as the next person, and I certainly followed these two sagas in real time. Did I, or the news media, or anyone outside the circle of people personally involved, know what the real facts were? Of course not, but that did not stop the reportage of every salacious development, nor did it stop members of the public from expounding and debating as if the facts were undisputed. For that matter, I still cannot say I know the true story regarding either Gliniewicz or Kane; all I know is what I have read and heard in the media.

The Center on Wrongful Convictions freed client list is similarly filled with stories that were front-page news after the incidents occurred. It turned out that those original accounts got the facts all wrong—most significantly the identities of the perpetrators, but often other key details as well.

In the criminal justice system, “finality” is highly valued, and it usually takes a herculean effort to disturb a conviction years later based on a new factual theory. It is worth remembering, however, that the first story may not always be the true story.

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