It is rough to lose the case of a client you believe is innocent. It is even rougher to lose that client to an untimely death before the innocence case has been resolved.
This has happened to me multiple times in my career. The first time, I was still a young assistant appellate defender. After the Illinois Supreme Court accepted the appeal of my client Christopher Knott, a man I continue to believe was erroneously convicted of armed robbery, he passed away in prison. Recently I reconnected with Christopher’s brother Dolby Knott, a prison ministry director, and was gratified to learn that Christopher is remembered annually with an award named in his honor.
The same fate awaited Anthony McKinney, who spent 35 years in prison until he died alone in his prison cell at the age of 53. Anthony had been granted an evidentiary hearing on his innocence claim, but as is true of too many post-conviction cases, the litigation dragged on for years—too long, as it turned out. His family was devastated by his death and then again by the denial of a posthumous pardon. To this day I wonder whether I missed any opportunities to speed up the process so that Anthony could have lived to see it through. Fortunately, I have beautiful memories of working with Anthony. Though mentally ill, he delighted in remembering how he watched his idol Muhammad Ali beat Leon Spinks for the world heavyweight championship on September 15, 1978—which was also Anthony’s alibi for the murder of which he was wrongfully convicted.
My colleague Steve Drizin worked with me on Anthony’s case. Last week Steve shared the tragic news that his long-time client Billy Wayne Cope had joined the ranks of the innocent who did not make it out of prison. Here is what Steve had to say: