Royal Albert china, wrongful convictions, and Mother’s Day


The mothers you meet doing innocence work.

I was on a team that represented Julie, a young divorced mother imprisoned for murdering her 10-year-old son Joel. At her retrial we proved that someone else committed the monstrous act; Julie was not only acquitted but was found factually innocent.

Julie is one of two children of Jim and Jane, a pastor and his wife. Joel was their only grandson, and during Joel’s short life, his mother and grandparents showered him with love. Joel’s murder devastated all of them, and they were not prepared for the ensuing unfounded accusations against Julie.

Jane and Jim rose to the occasion, as devoted parents tend to do. They tried to protect Julie from the police; they testified at her trial; they unwaveringly supported her throughout the legal proceedings and her incarceration. Jane amassed a file of case-related documents that any detective or investigator would envy.

During the years I represented Julie, Jane was a constant presence in my life as well. She urged the Center on Wrongful Convictions to take Julie’s case. After we did, she constantly provided information and encouragement. She sent inspirational notes. She and her friends offered up much-needed hospitality when we were working on site, far from our Chicago home base. She hugged us frequently.

But Jane was also the fierce mama bear. She kept close tabs on the legal team and made sure we were properly representing her daughter. She called us out when we were not responsive. She fund-raised and galvanized public support for her daughter’s cause. No mother’s love could have been stronger than Jane’s constant efforts to prove Julie’s innocence.

After Julie’s acquittal, I was incredibly touched when Jane sent me a Royal Albert Old Country Roses English tea set, knowing how much I love my tea. I have few possessions as beautiful as this, or as dear to me. Over the years, on the anniversary of the acquittal, Jane and Jim have often sent additions to my set, over my protestations that it’s all too much.

I love this family – not because of the gifts, but because of their goodness and their love and loyalty to one another. I ache for their tragedy, which I can never truly comprehend. What I do know, though, is that I am incredibly fortunate to have met them through my work and to now have a lifelong connection to them.

On Mother’s Day, Julie will mourn the son who was taken from her. Jane and Julie will celebrate their special bond. And I will make tea for myself and serve it in Royal Albert china.

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What a Wrongful Conviction Lawyer Thinks About After a Kindergarten Dance

About a month ago I went to my first Daddy-Daughter Dance. My daughter is six and in kindergarten. For where I am in my life, this dance was considered a big night out. My daughter is still at a point where dancing and hanging out with her Dad is fun and maybe even cool. I am very cognizant that my days are numbered. But we danced, ate pizza, and sang along with the music. (By the way, is it just me, or is the current state of pop music actually kind of awesome? Probably just me.) Anyway, I had a fantastic time.

Let me tell you a little bit about my daughter. She is truly the kindest, most thoughtful person I know. She genuinely cares about other people, and their feelings. Even when she gets mad at her brother, you can see she immediately regrets and feels awful about any name she calls him (even though he couldn’t care less). She also is a rule follower. I think the rule following and the kindness go together. She doesn’t want to rock the boat because she doesn’t want to upset anyone.

Back to the dance. While my daughter is well-liked by everyone in her class, she is part of a group of four girls that are close friends. Her teacher calls them the Core Four. The Core Four were all at the dance with their Dads, and they spent all of their time together. And as I watched the Core Four, I could see clear signs of the group dynamic at play. The Core Four has a clear leader that is not my daughter. Almost exclusively, it was the leader who would make decisions on where they would dance, or when they would go eat pizza, or have their photos taken. The other three followed her lead.

Now, sometimes the leader would have a more controversial idea. It might have been crawling to the floor as part of a dance move, or asking one of the Dads some sort of silly question. And I’d watch my daughter when something like this would happen. She’d kind of give me a quick glance and a half-smile, like she was checking to see if I fundamentally disapproved, while almost simultaneously following suit. But the quick glance really was just a millisecond, and her clear instinct was to just follow her leader.                                                                                              

I keep thinking about this dynamic as questions of juvenile crime and punishment continue to be grappled with both in the criminal justice world and in the public consciousness. In the March edition of the great criminal defense periodical The Champion, an issue which is entirely devoted to juvenile justice (you must be a member to see more than a summary of the articles, and, full disclosure, I have an article in the issue), my friend Maureen Pacheco writes: “These are historic times in the development of law pertaining to juveniles. . . . Advocates are pushing the courts and legislatures to recognize that young people are capable of change and society should never give up on them.” As part of its Retro Report series, The New York Times put together a tremendous 10-minute documentary revisiting “The ‘Superpredator’ Scare,” an early 1990s mythology that forecasted a wave of immoral, ruthless juveniles committing heinous crimes, a prediction that led to many of our current get-tough-on-crime policies and sentencing many young people to a lifetime of imprisonment. Another friend, John Maki, recently and compellingly argued that It’s Time to Abolish Automatic Transfer of juveniles to adult court.

So, what does a kindergarten dance and my daughter dancing on the floor with her friends or asking a silly question have to do with juvenile justice? Maybe nothing, but maybe something. As I witnessed with my own eyes these kindergarten group dynamics and some very, very innocuous peer pressure, the juvenile justice reform movement resonated with me in a way it never had. If my six-year-old daughter could be so easily talked into dancing on the floor when she was uncertain if Daddy would think it was okay, is it that ridiculous to think she could be talked into something slightly worse, something a little riskier, or something maybe even criminal when she is 11? Or 13? Or 15? Don’t the peer pressures get even worse? Aren’t the self-doubt and lack of confidence at an all-time high in adolescence and early teens? Could even my sweet daughter, who hates to rock the boat, find herself in such a situation?

While I’ve always believed in the progressive juvenile justice reforms many of my colleagues at the Children and Family Justice Center fight for on a daily basis, I feel like I’m beginning to understand it in a new way. So when I first read, for example, about the felony arrest of a 13-year-old boy for throwing a snowball at a police officer, I thought it was incredibly stupid. But when I read a follow-up report about the case after the Daddy-Daughter Dance, the true and utter ridiculousness of the charges became that much more clear to me. How many young people wouldn’t respond to fifteen peers daring them to throw a snowball at a car, even a police car? A few years from now, it very well could be my daughter on the receiving end of that dare. I imagine even someone with her genuine kindness – who doesn’t want to hurt anyone – could easily be so persuaded.

And thinking about these issues with a more traditional wrongful conviction lens, I have the same thoughts. While I have studied and written repeatedly about how suggestible youth are and how susceptible they are to false confession during police questioning (see, for example, my article in The Champion), I am starting to get more clarity about how truly easy it would be for a police officer to persuade a young person to sign on with a false narrative. I have one case where my teenage client (teenager1) is serving life in prison because teenager2 was persuaded by police to tell a story: Eight months after teenager2 initially admitted his own involvement in throwing rocks at a car that subsequently led to teenager3 discharging a gun, teenager2 told a supplemental story that this time included teenager1 (my client) encouraging the group to go for it and throw those rocks. During this supplemental story, my client wasn’t even there – the encouragement was an hour earlier.

It has really hit me of late how absolutely simple it would be to persuade teenager2 to tell that false story – how could he ever think that doing so would land my client in prison for life? And even if I’m wrong – and I don’t think I am – and my client (teenager1) did really tell that group to throw those rocks, the true absurdity that this singular act by an adolescent boy is even criminal, let alone could land him in prison for life, has struck me in a new way since that fateful Daddy-Daughter Dance.


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There’s Something About the Women (Women’s Project Conference March 2014)

We did it. When we launched the Center on Wrongful Convictions Women’s Project in November 2012, we set ourselves a goal of bringing together exonerated women, academics, and legal professionals for a future Women’s Project conference at the CWC. Our goal was realized on March 7, 2014, when 10 wrongfully convicted women (the most ever in one place at one time) and a large supportive audience gathered for an event evenly split between panel presentations open to the public and sessions for exonerees only.

To quote my favorite Holly Near song (which dates me, but who cares?): “There’s something about the women, all those beautiful women, there’s something about the women in my life.”

I reconnected with old friends and met wonderful new ones. We addressed serious matters but also made time for fun. From the shy to the self-assured, from the veteran speaker to the first-time panelist, from the small-town resident to the city dweller . . . each wrongfully convicted woman was a unique treasure, and I loved spending time with every one of these incredible survivors. Even better was watching how they bonded with each other—they are part of an exclusive club that no one wants to join and that no one but they can truly comprehend. Time and time again I heard them express how affirming it was to relate and heal together as women.

Moving forward, the Women’s Project will build on our developing connections with potential researchers and policy makers, and the women exonerees have plans of their own to stay in contact with each other and assist future members of their sisterhood upon release from prison. Looking back, we have an exquisite photo album that will continue to inspire and remind us of why we do what we do.

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Wrongful Convictions and Extreme Sentencing of Juveniles

Yesterday was a big day for those in the juvenile justice world – a world I count myself a member. In People v. Davis, the Illinois Supreme Court unanimously held that the 80 or so Illinois prisoners that are serving mandatorily imposed life without parole sentences for crimes they committed when they were under 18 will get new sentencing hearings. The case arose after the U.S. Supreme Court, in 2012, held in Miller v. Alabama that such sentences were unconstitutional. After that decision, the technical legal question became whether the Miller ruling would apply only to future cases (i.e., telling courts don’t do this again), or to only those who were already serving the sentence. Today, the Illinois Supreme Court said it applies to both.

Let’s stop there. You may be asking: Why is this being posted on a wrongful convictions blog? At least where I sit, there are lots of reasons, but let me hit on one. (Perhaps more blog posts to come on others…)

It should be no secret to anyone reading this how extraordinarily difficult it is for innocence lawyers to actually overturn a conviction. It is an uphill climb, and a very, very steep one at that. Finding any old documents, physical evidence, or witnesses is hard enough. Finding these things or people that include powerful exculpatory evidence for your client is that much harder. Finding those witnesses who are courageous enough to come forward and give sworn affidavits detailing the exculpatory evidence can be even more difficult. And convincing prosecutors, courts, and others that your evidence demonstrates innocence may be the hardest part of all. There is a very real presumption against do-overs in the criminal justice system. You need extraordinarily powerful evidence to convince people that the jury, the trial and appellate judges, the prosecutors, and everyone else got it wrong for X many years.

With that backdrop, I can’t begin to tell you many of my cases have been stymied somewhere along that process. You read about the successes, but what you don’t hear about are the individuals that my colleagues and I firmly believe are innocent, but can’t find or garner adequate evidence to either convince a court, or, in some cases, to even raise a claim. And I can tell you that there are individuals amongst the 80 or so Illinois inmates that Davis affects that fall into that category.

Yesterday’s decision means hope for the likely innocent people who may never be “proven” innocent. Yesterday’s decision allows them to reopen their cases even without evidence of innocence. Judges will now be forced to take a close and true look at who these people are. And these people are poets, religious leaders, and scholars. They are kind, warm, funny, and inspirational. They are fathers, brothers, husbands, sons, and friends who are loved dearly. Because of today’s ruling, as attorneys, we now get to go to court to demonstrate these individual’s humanity. If not a shot to get a court to acknowledge an injustice, it is a shot to prove why our beloved clients don’t deserve to spend the entirety of their lives behind prison walls. 

One last thing: I would be remiss if I did not say that those who are not factually innocent fit the description above and more. I find it so heartening that at least my innocent clients seem to unanimously support outlawing these types of mandatory, extreme sentences on juveniles. I think it is, at least in part, because my clients lived with these people in prison, and they could watch and see how people change, grow, mature, learn, and better themselves. I can only imagine how powerful it must be watching this firsthand – really seeing how each person is, was, and becomes so much more than there very worst act, and that an individual should not be discarded and forgotten about as a human being based on a single act committed as young man or woman. 

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Incentives and False Confessions

Two small, related news stories recently caught my eye. On December 19, 2013, several media outlets, including the Chicago Tribune, announced that a 21-year-old Chicago man named Denzel Garbutt had been charged with first-degree murder after confessing to being a lookout in the fatal shooting of a 12-year-old boy, Nazia “Peanut” Banks, in May 2012.

Just a few weeks later, however, the Tribune ran a second story, reporting that prosecutors had dropped charges against Garbutt after determining he was at his high school prom at the time of the crime.

Apparently, a false confession was nipped in the bud and prevented from becoming a wrongful conviction. But how, in the first place, were murder charges lodged against a young man who could not have participated in the crime? Garbutt was already in custody on other, lesser charges when he confessed. According to the Tribune: “Authorities said they believe Garbutt admitted to being a lookout in hopes of getting his gun and drug case dropped or reduced, not realizing that lookouts and getaway drivers can face murder charges under state law.”

The desire to obtain dismissal or reduction of charges is indeed a powerful motive for providing information to police. False testimony by incentivized witnesses has led to many wrongful convictions. The same motive can lead to false confessions, especially when the suspect, like Garbutt, may not even realize that he is confessing to a crime.

Twenty years ago, even the confirmed prom alibi might not have been enough to set Garbutt free. Consider the case of Daniel Taylor. In 1992, at the age of 17, Taylor was arrested for a double murder in the Uptown neighborhood of Chicago. Taylor confessed, but shortly thereafter, he provided authorities with a seemingly airtight alibi: he was in police custody on a minor charge at the time of the crime. It is difficult to imagine more convincing alibi witnesses than police officers.

Instead of releasing Taylor, however, authorities persisted in the prosecution, and Taylor was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment. Why? Because in 1992, it was unimaginable that even a homeless teenager would confess to a crime he did not commit. It was not until Taylor served more than two decades behind bars and additional exculpatory evidence finally surfaced that his murder convictions were finally overturned in June 2013.

I hope that the dropping of charges against Garbutt after discovery of his alibi is a sign of progress—a recognition that some confessions are indeed false. I also hope the police and prosecutors closely examine why Garbutt falsely confessed in the first place. Perhaps offering an arrestee a free pass on pending charges is not the most effective way of obtaining reliable information about unsolved crimes.

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