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From the Chicago Tribune

15 years, and now life

December 7, 2001

They wore no shackles, no handcuffs and no jailhouse blues when they walked free from their cellblocks on Wednesday. But they may never shake the prison dust from their heels.

It's impossible to imagine what life has been like for Omar Saunders, Larry Ollins and his cousin Calvin for the past 15 years, as they've sat behind prison bars for a crime they did not commit. They were ordered released after new DNA tests failed to link them to the 1987 rape and murder of Lori Roscetti, a 23-year-old medical student. A judge's order may have set them free, but it can't erase the pain they've endured or give back the spent years. Calvin Ollins was 14 when he entered prison. He went seven years without seeing his mother.

While he was growing up on the cellblocks, the state has been debating the merits of the criminal justice system that sent him there. For the most part, the discourse has centered on the death penalty and on the functional problems resulting in wrongful conviction in at least 13 capital cases.

But the Roscetti case suggests the problems run much deeper within the justice system, raising troubling questions about the evidence that can send someone away for life.

Of course, if today's DNA technology had been available at the time of the Roscetti investigation, the truth might have come to light before these men ever went to trial. Technological advances would help guard against a modern-day replication of the error.

But other serious problems can still haunt trials and investigations in Illinois. Here, two defendants actually confessed to the crime and implicated the others, then later claimed they were coerced and coached into their statements. Without a requirement in current law that police videotape the interrogations and confessions of felony suspects, though, it would still be just as difficult today for a judge or jury to find the merit in those claims.

Also in this case, key prosecution witnesses now say they lied at trial because they were trying to avoid prosecution or get leniency for themselves. Some state lawmakers have tried to mandate stricter scrutiny of testimony from jailhouse informants and other self-interested witnesses, but so far that hasn't become law.

Despite all of this potential for mistake, there are still those in public life who think things are working pretty well as they are. That list includes state Sen. Patrick O'Malley of Palos Park, a candidate for the Republican nomination for governor, and DuPage County State's Atty. Joseph Birkett, who is running for state attorney general. Both say it's time to lift the current moratorium on the death penalty in Illinois.

They're wrong. The moratorium should remain in place until Gov. George Ryan's special commission finishes studying the capital justice system. If anything, policy makers should delve more deeply into the abundance of flaws that still remain in Illinois criminal cases.

Sure, that may take a while. Just ask Calvin Ollins how long a year can last.

Copyright � 2001, Chicago Tribune