Crown Heights movie recommendation

Let me be clear: In no universe am I a professional movie critic, as you will see by reading this post. But I am a wrongful conviction lawyer and law professor, and I know a good teaching tool when I see one – plus, I love movies. Crown Heights (2017), based on the real-life exoneration of Brooklynite Colin Warner, effectively communicates the difficulty and sheer force of will it takes to overturn a wrongful murder conviction. I highly recommend it for its entertainment and educational value.

Here are a few thing things I especially appreciate about the movie:

  • While a two-hour film cannot possibly replicate the passage of twenty-one years behind bars, the movie – and Lakeith Stanfield’s exquisite portrayal of the innocent Colin Warner – gives the viewer a sense of how slowly the wheels of justice turn and an innocent convict’s many transformations while adjusting to an unjust incarceration.
  • The story also realistically demonstrates how incredibly difficult it is to muster enough evidence to overturn a conviction – a task that feels ridiculously impossible in comparison to the ease with which the government gained the conviction in the first place.
  • I loved the focus on Colin Warner’s dedicated friend, Carl King (wonderfully played by Nnamdi Asomugha). In so many wrongful conviction cases there is an unsung hero in the background – perhaps a relative, friend, or community volunteer – who, like Carl King, receives no personal gain but willingly sacrifices much to bring an innocent person home.

There is a scene in the film that absolutely devastates me, given my profession. Colin’s friends and family painstakingly raise enough funds to hire a private attorney for one of his appeals. As the attorney stands to present Colin’s case to the judge, the camera’s viewpoint is from the back of the courtroom, where Carl King silently and helplessly watches, and then . . . never mind, no spoilers here. Suffice it to say that this moment is a forceful reminder of what a solemn responsibility it is for a lawyer to take on an innocence case. I pray that I may always rise to the occasion.

With 2.3 million people in the U.S. behind bars, and with as many as 100,000 of them innocent of the crimes with which they are charged, Colin Warner’s wrongful conviction was anything but an aberration. What went wrong in his case? Simply put, the police and prosecutors did not do their jobs. What can citizens who are concerned about justice do? Pay attention, know the issues, use the ballot, volunteer time and resources, and show up when asked. Thank you, director Matt Ruskin, for animating Colin Warner’s ordeal and making his story accessible. Most of all, thank you, Colin, for your willingness to share one of the worst experiences imaginable so that others may not suffer as you did.

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The Illinois General Assembly finally passed a budget on July 6, 2017, overriding a veto by Governor Bruce Rauner. After more than two years without a full state budget, this is welcome news to many in Illinois, but none more so than the 22 exonerees who have received court-issued certificates of innocence but not the statutory compensation that normally accompanies them.

In 2008, the Center on Wrongful Convictions supported the creation of a certificate of innocence remedy in Illinois, not only because it would provide a vehicle for exonerees to demonstrate they were actually innocent rather than freed by a technicality, but also because it would expedite the process of determining eligibility for state compensation through the Illinois Court of Claims. A few kinks in the statute remain, but it had worked relatively well in streamlining the receipt of compensation—until Illinois politics created a budget impasse beginning in 2015. No wrongful conviction awards have been paid since then.

Imagine being snatched from your life and sent to prison for many years (or decades) for a crime you did not commit. When you are finally freed, your home and possessions are long gone, your bank account is drained, and you are not immediately suited for a job. You struggle to readjust to a world that is quite different from the one you left so many years earlier. You may or may not have family and friends who can help, but regardless, it is galling to rely on the charity of others when your incarceration was not remotely your fault. Now imagine the government has agreed that you were wrongfully convicted and are entitled to compensation, but no payment is forthcoming because of political wrangling in the state capitol. This has been the plight of no fewer than 22 Illinois exonerees for over two years.

While it is good news that these exonerees will finally receive their statutory compensation (which is sorely inadequate, but that is a topic for another post), this cannot happen again. Legislators should amend the law to guarantee that exonerees will be compensated in a timely manner even if there is a future budget standoff—just as lawmakers and other state employees continued to receive their paychecks during this past budget impasse. The people and the government of Illinois owe at least that much to our wrongfully convicted.

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Rest in peace, Billy Wayne Cope (the clients we lose)

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:

People sometimes ask me — which is the worst miscarriage of justice you have been a part of? Without hesitation — and I’ve seen more injustice as a lawyer in my lifetime than anyone should have to see — I say: “Nothing compares to what the State of South Carolina — York County prosecutors, a trial court judge, a jury, and a bevy of appellate court judges and state Supreme Court judges — did to my client Billy Wayne Cope.”
Billy Wayne Cope died today at the age of 53. His legal team, which has more than tripled in size since James Morton, Michael Smith and Phil Baity represented him at trial, released the following statement:
“In the years we represented Billy, he was unfailingly polite, optimistic, and full of faith, and he maintained these qualities in the long years that followed his conviction. Our inability to save him from this fate is one of the deepest disappointments of our lives and careers.
Billy’s death marks a sad end to a horrible miscarriage of justice. Billy confessed to a dreadful crime he did not commit. When DNA later proved the actual killer was a career burglar and serial rapist named James Sanders, who had just been released from prison in North Carolina, law enforcement should have faced up to the truth and admitted they obtained a false confession from the grieving and psychologically vulnerable father of a murdered child. Instead, the prosecution concocted a fantastic new theory that Billy must have cooperated with Sanders – a man he never met – in raping and murdering his own daughter in his own home. The State, then, succeeded in convicting both, the real killer and Billy, of a crime only one person actually committed. Billy Cope lost everything –the last 15 years of his life, his family, and now any chance that this legal atrocity will ever be set right. This is a dark day for justice in South Carolina.”
I’ve been fortunate in my line of work to experience the great joy of walking innocent clients out of prison and back into the arms of their loved ones. In fact, less than 24 hours before learning of Billy’s death, I was on Cloud 9 after learning that the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office had agreed to drop charges against my client (and three other Chicago teens who falsely confessed to a double murder in 1995). If you do this work long enough, you learn a sobering lesson. The wins are wonderful. You never forget them. But it’s the losses, especially the cases of Unrequited Innocence, that will haunt you until your dying days. RIP BWC.
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My last-minute criminal justice gift list

The best way to get what you want is to ask for it. Here is my short criminal justice wish list (I don’t want to be greedy), just in time for the December holidays but also valid through 2017:

Exoneree compensation: This is addressed to Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner, House Speaker Michael Madigan, and Senate President John Cullerton. We have a compensation law in Illinois, but for the last year and a half, you all have been unable to agree on a budget—meaning wrongful incarceration awards have not been paid. Stop your bickering long enough to compensate the wrongly convicted! (For more on the human costs, see this Chicago Tribune article.)

Conviction Integrity Unit: This one is for newly elected Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx. You have pledged to upgrade your office’s conviction integrity unit. I believe you; I think this wish will be granted. To make your job easier, here is the Quattrone Center’s paper on best practices for conviction review units. The essential recommendations are at the very beginning. Use it is a blueprint.

Jury instruction on eyewitness testimony: Illinois Pattern Jury Instruction (Criminal) 3.15, which outlines how jurors should consider identification testimony, is badly outdated. For heaven’s sake, it is based on a 40-year-old opinion predating our current understanding of factors affecting eyewitness reliability. The Committee on Jury Instructions in Criminal Cases should take a lesson from New Jersey or another enlightened state and give jurors better tools to evaluate eyewitness testimony.

Open file discovery: Individual State’s Attorneys, you can adopt this as your office’s policy. Illinois Supreme Court Rules Committee, you should incorporate this into the discovery rules. What exactly does open file discovery mean? Only that prosecutors turn over their entire investigative file to the defense, except sensitive information withheld with court approval. Better prepared defense attorneys mean fewer wrongful convictions. If Texas can adopt open file discovery, so can everyone else.

Address racial bias: This last one is for everyone, including me. Conscious, implicit, systemic . . . however we categorize it, racial bias is the most pressing challenge facing our criminal justice system. There is no easy fix, but we cannot begin to solve the problem unless we are willing to name it and admit it exists—and too many actors in the system still refuse to concede the role racism plays in determining who is prosecuted, convicted, and over-sentenced. To put it another way, in the immortal words of SNL’s Kenan Thompson: “Take it one step at a time. Identify the problem. FIX IT!”

Let’s meet up again, same time, next year, and see how much of my wish list was fulfilled. Happy holidays!

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My Podcast Interviews about Eyewitness Identification Experts and Causes of Wrongful Convictions

I love a good podcast. I started with This American Life and took off from there. Podcasts allow me to multitask in a way television and the internet do not; I can listen hands-free while walking my dog, driving, or cooking dinner. I was thus tickled and honored to be interviewed earlier this year for two wonderful podcast series.

The first was Undisclosed, which began by following Adnan Syed’s case and branched out into other innocence-related topics. Here is my wide-ranging conversation with one of the hosts, Colin Miller, about common causes of wrongful convictions:

The second was, a lively resource created by defense attorney Samuel Partida, Jr. He and I talked about expert testimony on eyewitness identification in light of a recent key Illinois Supreme Court decision:

Criminal Nuggets: Podcast on Eyewitness Identification Litigation

If you listen to the above and are hungry for more, check out these additional podcasts relating to criminal law and wrongful convictions:

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