Returning to Prison for the Right Reasons

Hannah Overton, a loving mother of five, languished behind bars for seven years due to a wrongful conviction based on the tragic but non-criminal death of her foster son. The televised images late last year of Hannah leaving jail with her family brought tears to my eyes. I thought to myself that if I were she, I would do little more than nest at home and pamper myself for the foreseeable future.

Just recently, I read that Hannah had returned to prison – but this time, she was there to visit and counsel. Hannah started a prison ministry while she was locked up, and she plans to continue her service to prisoners even after winning her freedom.

Hannah is by no means the first exoneree to give back after leaving prison. One who comes readily to my mind is my former client Dana Holland, who had the distinction of being wrongfully convicted of two separate crimes, for which he was sentenced to 118 years. After a decade of incarceration, Dana was exonerated and left jail on June 6, 2003. Less than six months later, I was shocked and profoundly moved when he told me he planned to return to the same jail to help serve Thanksgiving dinner to the inmates. Like Hannah, Dana led a Bible study and counseled other inmates while on the inside. Like Hannah, he could not simply walk away after his release.

In a similar vein, Sunny Jacobs and Peter Pringle – an improbable married pair of former death row inmates (she of the United States, he of Ireland) – have offered up their beautiful Irish home as a sanctuary for exonerees. Other formerly incarcerated men and women have started foundations, worked with students, volunteered with innocence organizations, and helped ex-prisoners on a one-to-one basis.

The comedian Louis C.K. talks about the importance of being useful: “if you can be useful, it just makes you feel better.” As Hannah, Dana, and many more exonerees have demonstrated, it’s a win-win situation.

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Wrongful Convictions and the Purvi Patel Appeal

What a relief that Center on Wrongful Convictions co-founder Larry Marshall will handle the appeal of Purvi Patel, an Indiana woman unjustly sentenced to 20 years in prison for feticide and neglect of a child. I have been closely following this case, on behalf of the CWC Women’s Project and out of great personal interest, and every aspect is disturbing—from the nature of the charges to the holes in the prosecution’s evidence to the sentence imposed.

The defense contended that Ms. Patel miscarried and that her baby was stillborn; if this is true, obviously there was no crime. As it happens, nearly two-thirds of proven wrongful convictions of women were in “no-crime” cases.

The prosecution’s theory was that Ms. Patel committed feticide by taking illegal abortion drugs, and, incongruously, that she committed neglect by delivering, at home, a live but very premature baby who died a few seconds after birth. The evidence supporting this theory was highly problematic and Larry will certainly bring out its weaknesses during the appeal. Indeed, Ms. Patel could hardly have chosen better in engaging Larry as pro bono appellate counsel. What is chilling about this case, though, is the unveiled threat to women that once they become pregnant, they lose autonomy over their own lives and may be criminally liable if they are deemed to have fallen short in guaranteeing a healthy birth.

Ms. Patel’s sentence is every bit as outrageous as the charges. In what universe does a woman with no criminal background, who was hiding her pregnancy due to fear of her family’s disapproval, deserve twenty years behind bars for neglect because she panicked after her baby came early? Most rapists and batterers get off with much less.

Some folks in criminal justice consider wrongful convictions to be “wrong person” cases, in which all that was wrong with the prosecution was the identity of the defendant. The Purvi Patel case, however, is an equally invidious type of “wrongful conviction” in which most likely there should have been no prosecution at all.

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Johnnie Lee Savory

Some work days are better than others. Yesterday was one of those days.

Johnnie Lee Savory is a very important person in the lives of many of us at the Center on Wrongful Convictions. For those of you who know Johnnie, you know exactly what I mean. For those of you who don’t, a short blog post can’t even begin to express what he has meant to so many of us. Whether we are talking about attorneys, law students, paralegals, volunteers, or exonerees, Johnnie has touched the lives of all of us.

Johnnie’s special brand of compassion, graciousness, and genuine kindness directed toward those of us at the Center has come while Johnnie himself has been tormented by what I have termed an abyss of injustice. As a fourteen-year-old boy living in Peoria in 1977, Johnnie was steamrolled by police and forced to confess to a double murder he did not commit. Johnnie spent the next 30 years in prison until he was paroled roughly eight years ago. For these 38 years, all Johnnie has ever asked for is the truth. And for the last 17 years, since the advent of DNA technology in the criminal justice system, Johnnie has explained to anyone who would listen that DNA would convey the truth. But for so long no court, no prosecutor, no governor, no [insert anyone with authority to order it here], would allow Johnnie to conduct those DNA tests.

For the eight years he has been out of prison, Johnnie has spent that time giving . To our students and others, Johnnie has patiently explained – time and time again – his story of injustice. He has watched one by one as others wrongfully convicted got DNA tests, or hearings, that exonerated them. And as those individuals attempted to navigate a post-exoneration life on the outside, Johnnie was there for them. Counseling them, helping them, giving to them. All the while, Johnnie still in the midst of his own injustice.

But yesterday was special because we got to give to Johnnie. Two years ago, at our urging, a court finally ordered those DNA tests. And yesterday, during a lengthy hearing that went well into the evening, we got to advocate on behalf of Johnnie – we got to argue, and put on evidence, and tell that story of truth that Johnnie always wanted to tell. And that story of truth, of course, is that Johnnie is innocent.

And what made yesterday even more special was that so much of this advocacy, this fighting, this giving to Johnnie was done by three incredible law students. Monica Pedroza, Emily Powers, and Amanda Toy presented our three witnesses. They were composed, prepared, and ultimately, powerful and persuasive in their direct examinations of these important witnesses. But don’t take my word for it. Take the judge’s. At nearly 7:00 p.m. as the hearing finally came to a close – long after any judge likes to stay around – our judge took several minutes to compliment these three extraordinary students on their preparation and presentation.

And as I reflect on this last paragraph, it hits me that even as I thought we were giving to Johnnie, here he was giving to us yet again. Neither Monica, Emily, nor Amanda had ever presented a witness in court before. Yet Johnnie trusted these students with his case, with his life – to enable our clinic to perform our mission to train students. Yet another act of graciousness from Johnnie in a life full of such acts.

students at Savory hearing
Monica, Emily, and Amanda conferring with their witnesses shortly before the start of the hearing

Savory photo

Johnnie Lee Savory

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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 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

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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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