Jane Raley: The loss of a mentor

In a decade of practicing law, I have had a handful of incredible mentors. One of them is Jane Raley.

I met Jane in August 2008 when I joined the Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth at Northwestern University School of Law. Jane started her career in the same place I had just come from – the Illinois Office of the State Appellate Defender (OSAD) – but had been with the CWC since 2000. (We never overlapped at OSAD.) When I arrived, I was placed in an office right next to hers. We’ve literally been office next door neighbors for 6-1/2 years.

Despite our close proximity, I can’t say I really knew her at all for the first four years. She was a bit of a whirling dervish – you never really knew when she would be around. She’d come flying into the office for a couple of hours, but most of that time was spent meeting with students or writing motions and briefs for clients. Otherwise, she was constantly on the move, although I never really seemed to know what she was doing. (I never asked.) And then all of a sudden, she would win exoneration for (another) one of her clients, or win an appeal, or achieve some other fantastic result for her client. She became sort of a mythical creature in my mind – I mean, I guess that doesn’t really make sense. I knew she was real, but how she accomplished what she did was totally unclear to me.

A couple of years ago, I decided that I wanted to find out. I asked her if I could co-counsel on a case with her. She said yes. Then, a year later, in what can only be described as a surreal moment, she came whirling into my office and, in about a millisecond, told me that she had advanced colorectal cancer. (The truth is, she told me the type of cancer she had but it all happened so quickly and my head was spinning that I didn’t even hear her or absorb it at that time. I didn’t really learn the type of cancer until much later.) After that millisecond, she then proceeded to spend the next twenty minutes describing one of her cases to me while asking me to take it over. At every and all points during that “meeting,” whenever I attempted to bring the conversation back to her health, she cut me off and started talking about the case again. It was all she wanted to discuss.

And while I guess you could say I “took over” those cases, Jane continued to stay involved despite her illness. And while her energy waned here and there, she was the same whirling dervish. But I finally started to figure out where she was and what she was doing all the time. What she was doing was running around tracking down every conceivable witness in her cases. What she was doing was talking and meeting with family members of her incarcerated clients and helping them through the ongoing grieving process of losing their loved ones to wrongful conviction. And what she was doing – probably more often than either of those things – was travelling to prisons throughout the state to meet and counsel her clients. Jane loved her clients in a way I’ve never witnessed from a lawyer before or since. And the converse is true as well – her clients love and trust her in ways I’ve never otherwise witnessed.

Jane was my mentor because in the last two years she brought me clarity at a time in my career when I probably needed it most. Just before I really started working with her, I was having my first real success at the Center. My cases and wins were in the media a lot. I was getting praise and pats on the back. All of a sudden, people were calling me an expert and wanted me to speak at their conferences. And while I don’t think of myself as having the type of personality where I would get a big head, it is hard not to enjoy those things.

But Jane didn’t care about any of that. All she did was serve her clients and fight for them – nothing else mattered. She made lawyering look easy and uncomplicated because of this singular, unwavering focus. To me, she will always epitomize client-centered lawyering. Whether she won her clients’ cases or not, her incredibly warm smile, unrelenting empathy, and constant optimism made their lives better. Watching her work grounded me and helped ensure that my focus was always in the right place.

Jane died peacefully on Christmas day surrounded by the family she adored. I’m tremendously sad. All of us who were lucky enough to work with her and know her are.


Jane’s family has requested that donations be made to the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law in her honor. Below are instructions on how to do so:

Jane Raley Memorial Fund

To make a donation in memory of Jane Raley, please send a check (payable to “Northwestern University School of Law” with “Jane Raley Memorial Fund” in the subject line) to:

Office of Alumni Relations and Development
Northwestern University School of Law
375 East Chicago Avenue
Chicago, IL 60611

To make a memorial gift online, please visit http://giving.northwestern.edu/nu/cwc and type ‘Jane Raley Memorial Fund’ in the “other designations” box.  You may also note this fund in the Honorary/Memorial Gift options section of the giving site.

If you have any questions, please contact Emily Mullin at 312.503.1558 or emily.mullin@law.northwestern.edu

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Serial and the CWCY

Sarah Koenig’s addictive Serial, which in its first season has explored the innocence claim of a man convicted as a teenager of killing his girlfriend, has great relevance to the work that I do at the Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth (CWCY) at Northwestern University School of Law. Recently, when people find out what I do, they immediately want to talk about this podcast, which has spent several weeks as the most downloaded series on iTunes, displacing its parent show, This American Life, and inspired countless blogs, Reddit posts, and even podcasts based on the podcast—the majority of which comment on the central figure’s guilt, or lack thereof, and speculate about what really happened. Serial has sparked an unprecedented amount of public discourse about the workings—or more often, the failings—of the American criminal justice system, the slippery nature of truth, the fallibility of memory, the racism endemic to our criminal justice system, and the pitfalls of narrative journalism. In doing so, Koenig has shined a light on issues that largely live in the shadows in our society.

Koenig is also a journalist though; part of her job is to tell an interesting story, to craft an intriguing narrative in order to reel in an audience. This often requires that the details of the drama, the characteristics and situation of the protagonist, and the egregious mistakes of the criminal justice system that sealed his fate appear to be unique, exceptional, an anomaly which justifies the storytelling. The unacceptable truth is that the story told in Serial is all too common in our society.

The CWCY represents and advocates on behalf of many people like Adnan Syed every year –juveniles who were convicted of horrible crimes they did not commit, as well as juveniles whose convictions are wrongful due to egregious violations of their rights, regardless of guilt or innocence. Whether or not you believe Adnan is innocent—and certainly reasonable minds may disagree on this question—most listeners should agree that his conviction is wrongful because our criminal justice system failed him in more ways than one. Cases like Adnan’s are tragically not exceptional.

In the final episode of Serial, Koenig confronted the question of whether Adnan’s case is “unremarkable.” A police practices expert, interviewed twice during the series, aptly concludes Adnan’s case is “a mess.” Koenig says that attorneys, police, and others with whom she has spoken all agree that the case is inordinately messy. And so do I – Adnan’s case is a tangle of shifting stories from witnesses (mostly teenage witnesses), half-truths or lies, unreliable evidence, and, ultimately, no cohesive story and no solid evidence to exculpate Adnan. But I strenuously disagree with the notion that the messiness of this case is remarkable. As Rabia Chaudry, Adnan’s family friend and an attorney who first contacted Koenig about Adnan’s case commented, “it sounds like a crazy litany of ‘everything-that-could-go-wrong’ in a trial, except that all of these things did go wrong in Adnan’s case. And Adnan’s case is no outlier – for any and every wrongfully convicted person, you can assume almost everything went wrong.” Indeed, in my professional experience advocating for youth in our criminal justice system, criminal cases against kids and cases involving predominantly young witnesses are often the flimsiest, and the resulting convictions are often the most dubious.

It is not a fluke or conspiracy that so many children and teenagers are wrongfully convicted. Young people are more likely to be wrongfully convicted than adults for reasons relating to their age and lack of maturity. Children and teenager’s brains are not fully developed, and that development is critically important to successfully negotiating interactions with police and navigating our criminal justice system. Children and teenagers are categorically more suggestible, compliant, and vulnerable to outside pressures and demands from authority, such as police interrogation, than adults. Children and teenagers are less able to consider long-term consequences and weigh risks, less likely to understand their legal rights, and less likely to understand how their attorneys can help them. Children and teenagers are three times more likely to falsely confess to a crime they did not commit than adults.  Research shows that it requires the intelligence and maturity of at least a 14-year-old to comprehend the Miranda rights police are required to give to people upon arrest, yet police did not alter or further explain these rights when they read them to kids under 14 years.

I hope that the popularity of Serial will translate to increased public awareness of the plight of youth who are wrongfully convicted. Sarah Koenig and the team behind the podcast have highlighted the inconsistencies, the biases, the failures of defense, and the plethora of human errors that factored Adnan’s conviction. It is critical that fans and listeners of Serial come away with the sense that Adnan’s story is not the exception to the rule, but an uncomfortably common miscarriage of justice in an imperfect system. The media in general, and in particular, Koenig’s crafted storytelling, have immeasurable power over how those lucky enough not to have had involvement in the criminal justice system view that system’s strengths and weaknesses. One of the greatest contributions Serial has made is a cogent, compelling counter-narrative to “crime” shows like the many Law & Order and CSI iterations. The popularity of Serial, and the passion Koenig and her team clearly feel for the injustice at its center, are hopeful indications that the American public is awake to the plight of those whom our justice system has failed. My hope is that listeners will continue to educate themselves on these issues, and take action to prevent situations like Adnan’s from happening to future generations of young people.

Megan Crane, Clinical Fellow*

*Huge thanks to CWCY Program Coordinator Hope Rehak for her many wonderful contributions to this post.

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Exoneration Integrity

Recently, the Ohio Innocence Project announced a triple exoneration of their client Ricky Jackson and his codefendants Kwame Ajamu (formerly Ronnie Bridgeman) and Wiley Bridgeman, former death row inmates who spent nearly 40 years in prison for a crime they didn’t commit. Their convictions were based on the testimony of a then-12-year-old boy who recanted decades later. The case is reminiscent of Center on Wrongful Convictions client Jacques Rivera, who was likewise exonerated after the sole witness against him, a then-12-year-old boy, similarly recanted decades later.

In the Ricky Jackson case, prosecutors voluntarily dismissed charges last month after the recanting witness finished testifying. What they did this month, though, is even more astonishing and laudable. On December 9, 2014, Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Timothy J. McGinty filed a “notice of intent” document in the Court of Common Pleas intended to expedite the process of qualifying the three men for state compensation. In pertinent part, the notice states:

“[T]he Cuyahoga County Prosecutor has no evidence tying any of the three convicted defendants to the crimes, considers the defendants innocent, and joins in the defense motions to declare them so.  They have been victims of a terrible injustice. In order to further justice and to avoid the unnecessary accumulation of attorney’s fees on behalf of the defendants, it is the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s position not to oppose the anticipated wrongful imprisonment claims.”

In October 2014, the Center on Wrongful Convictions hosted a Conviction Integrity Conference, which addressed prosecutors’ efforts to take matters into their own hands and address wrongful convictions from inside their offices. Jose Torres, the head of the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Conviction Integrity Unit, was a panelist at the conference. It is to be hoped that the courageous and compassionate action by his office in the Ricky Jackson case will motivate other prosecutors to affirmatively pave the way for speedy declarations of innocence and state compensation after the dismissal of charges against innocent persons who have served time in prison.

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The Next Stage in the Innocence Movement

When we first envisioned hosting a conference exploring prosecutor-initiated Conviction Integrity Units, I remember feeling that we should think big. I thought this type of conference had the potential to have wide interest both locally and nationally. I was hoping the project would be a collaboration of sorts – an open discussion from a variety of perspectives toward the shared goal of ensuring that the wrongfully convicted are correctly identified. I even remember noting to some friends: I probably have “delusions of grandeur,” but I think this could be a big deal.

As I think back on those first visions, I can’t help but smile. We did it! And you know what – I think it was a big deal!  As the emails, CLE written comments, and other reflections from friends and attendees have started to pour in, I think others have recognized that it was a big deal as well. It is hard to please what Karen Daniel aptly described as such a diverse audience in her previous blog post and opening statements to the event, but we seemed to have pulled it off. Overwhelmingly, attendees and panelists not only praised the conference, but so many relayed how they very much hope this is just the beginning of a larger movement toward collaboration on these issues:  “Let’s build on this moment,” was a common refrain.

And I agree – Let’s build on this moment. I believe more collaboration – more strange bedfellows, so to speak, is the logical next step in the innocence movement. It is clear to me, after hearing national prosecution leaders like Brooklyn District Attorney Kenneth Thompson, Harvard Law Professor Ron Sullivan, Dallas County prosecutor Russell Wilson, and Association of Prosecuting Attorneys President David Labahn; emerging voices and leaders like Cuyahoga County District Attorney Jose Torres and Santa Clara County prosecutor David Angel; local prosecutors like Anita Alvarez and Michael Nerheim who are listening and care about these issues; and the so many other prosecutors and others (over 400 people) who came and listened at the conference, that the time is now for this type of collaboration. With visionary defense leaders like Innocence Network President Keith Findley and CWC co-legal Directors Karen Daniel and Jane Raley embracing this potential, I feel even more confident.

Ultimately, the conference taught me that the issues in this type of collaboration going forward are not uncomplicated or easily overcome. But the potential for real reform and a better criminal justice system means we should embrace these challenges moving forward.

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Conviction Integrity Conference

Our Conviction Integrity Conference (October 29, 2014) is in the books. The conference program and CLE materials will be available for a bit longer here. Over 400 people registered for the conference and saw 7 top prosecutors discuss the hows and whys of their conviction integrity units, as well as a diverse set of speakers stressing the need for conviction integrity review and a panel of experts explaining common causes of wrongful convictions. We were incredibly pleased with how it all went, and we hope to make videotapes of the panels available to those who were unable to attend.

Below is an adapted version my opening remarks for the conference.


Thank you for being here. When we at the Center on Wrongful Convictions (CWC) conceived this conference about a year ago, we were intrigued by the formation of so-called Conviction Integrity Units (CIUs) in prosecutors’ offices. There were two relatively new CIUs in Illinois – here in Cook County and up in Lake County – and a handful of others we knew about around the country that were doing very visible work. We wanted to learn about how these units were being set up, and we felt we could contribute to the conversation because, after all, we have been reviewing wrongful conviction claims for 15 years.

Today, this conference could not be better timed. There are now roughly 20 CIUs nationwide, some of which were formed this year. Likewise, we keep reading about convictions that have been vacated as a result of the hard work of CIUs – including two just yesterday in Dallas and two earlier this month in Brooklyn. Representatives from both of those offices are here today.


What is going on here? Why this CIU fever? Well, if you think about it, it is part of a continuum that began in 1989, the year of the very first DNA-based exoneration, that of Gary Dotson here in Illinois.

Following that, the 1990s saw a dramatic rise in DNA testing as a means of proving both guilt and innocence, and a much broader awareness of the prevalence of wrongful convictions. In response, defense-based projects formed that focused on representing people with innocence claims. By the year 2000 there were already 10, including the CWC, and today there are 56 such projects. In that same period, from 1989 through today, the National Registry of Exonerations recorded 1,465 exonerations. Most of these, I might add, were not based on DNA evidence. As these wrongful convictions were discovered, we learned things. It turns out that not all confessions are true, not all eyewitness identifications are accurate, not all scientific testimony is valid, and the adversary system does not always reveal the truth. Many times it does, but not always. Those of us in the CWC and other projects talked a lot about these issues, often rather loudly. We frequently felt we weren’t be being heard by the people who mattered.

But obviously, many prosecutors were listening. Starting with Dallas County in 2007, and gaining momentum in this decade, we have begun seeing formalized conviction review units within prosecutors’ offices. Some of these units also work on developing best practices to avoid future wrongful convictions. Maybe 20 isn’t a huge number, but this growing trend represents the very best impulses of those who work in the criminal justice system.


Which brings me to you all. This is, easily, the most “diverse” audience of any CWC event we’ve ever hosted – “diverse” in the sense of your differing roles in the criminal justice system. Look around you, and you may see:

  • Prosecutors from county, state, and federal offices
  • Public defenders on both trial and appellate levels
  • The private defense bar
  • Attorneys whose work focuses on wrongful convictions
  • The civil bar, including, attorneys who work on both sides of civil rights litigation
  • Police officers, other law enforcement investigators, and private investigators
  • The judiciary is represented in this room
  • Persons who have been wrongfully convicted, and crime victims, are also represented
  • Professors and students – after all, this is a law school
  • And last but not least, interested members of the public


Just by getting you all in the same room together, we have accomplished one of the goals of the conference. Will we all agree on everything? Of course not. Everyone here has a critical, but distinct, role in the process. You won’t agree with all of today’s panelists, and they won’t all agree with each other. But the other goal here is to take time out from the day-to-day grind, in an atmosphere of mutual respect, and learn from each other and perhaps gain some new perspectives. That being said, I believe I can safely say that everyone in this room does agree on this: people should not go to prison, or remain in prison, for crimes they didn’t commit. That’s what brings us together today – that, and 3.5 hours of CLE credit.

On a personal note, I am certainly very proud of my job and my organization, but the folks in this room I have tremendous respect for are the ones working on the front lines, day in and day out, investigating crimes, bringing dangerous criminals to justice – and to balance that out, testing and challenging that very same evidence, and ensuring that due process, individual liberties, and other important safeguards of justice are observed. I am also very gratified that the CWC is well on the way to achieving an improved working relationship with our local prosecutor’s office and with other offices around the country. This benefits not only our clients, but the criminal justice system as a whole.

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