Innocence is Not Enough: Illinois Certificates of Innocence & the Case of Wayne Washington

Wright, Erin M. | June 7, 2023

In 2008, the Illinois State Legislature found that “innocent persons who have been wrongly convicted of crimes in Illinois and subsequently imprisoned have been frustrated in seeking legal redress due to a variety of substantive and technical obstacles in the law[.]” To correct this injustice, the General Assembly created a petition for a Certificate of Innocence (“COI”), which provides wrongfully convicted individuals the opportunity to obtain financial relief for time spent incarcerated. Petitioners must show that they “did not by [their] own conduct voluntarily cause or bring about [their] conviction.” Notably, the legislature did not supply a definition for “voluntary,” leaving courts free to impart their own. Despite the legislature’s recognition that “substantive and technical obstacles” prevent wrongly convicted individuals from relief, Illinois courts have imposed such obstacles through the term “voluntary.” In some instances, courts ignore this critical term by entirely omitting it from statutory analysis; in others, courts use “voluntary” to deny COIs. In the judiciary’s view, an individual “voluntarily cause[s] or bring[s] about” their conviction when they confess to a crime or accept a plea deal, regardless of the circumstances. This interpretation ignores the innocence of a person whose confession was coerced or accepted a plea deal under circumstances disguised as a rational choice. Although granting a COI is “generally within the sound discretion of a court,” the Illinois judiciary has improperly imposed a condition absent from the text that, carried to its logical conclusion, would deny COIs to innocent people. This Comment explores the purpose of Section 2-702, contemplates “voluntary” conduct, and illuminates the implications of judicial frustration. The case of Wayne Washington exemplifies the judiciary’s abuse of discretion and its imposition of substantive and technical obstacles that the Illinois legislature sought to overcome by enacting Section 2-702. Finally, this Comment argues that COIs are the only adequate remedy for wrongfully convicted individuals and proposes legislative and judicial solutions.