What is your educational background?
I graduated from U of I Champaign. I earned my law degree at Wake Forest Law School in North Carolina.
When I came out of law school I was willing to do anything so I got a job with the appellate defender where I have worked most of my career. In 1985 I was handed the Rolando Cruz appeal. Today, 26 years later, this case still stands as one of the most infamous cases of wrongful conviction in the country. Once I got that case, I was hooked. It ignited a passion to do this work.
How did you get involved with the Downstate Illinois Innocence Project?
I have known Bill Clutter for twenty years and have worked on several very prominent cases with him, including the Cruz case. I met Larry Golden through Bill. Those two men are very hard to say "no" to. I did pro bono work out here at UIS for years while I was working for the appellate defender. That's how I first became involved personally.
Why do you care so passionately about wrongful convictions?
I remember hearing my mother saying to me as a child, "It's better that ten guilty men go free than one innocent person go to prison." That came back to me when I was a young lawyer sitting on death row with Rolando Cruz. I had read all 11,000 pages of his first appeal transcript and I had no doubt that he had been wrongly convicted. Seeing how the conviction affected him and his family, having to deliver the news that his father had died, working with Rolando so early in my career and remembering what my mother had said - I think that's where the passion comes from.
The way I look at it is this: I don't think that there is any discipline or aspect of society that doesn't make mistakes, and that includes the criminal justice system. In wrongful conviction cases, sometimes the prosecution or the police who were involved in getting the conviction don't admit that they have the wrong guy. Somebody has to stand up for those wrongfully convicted inmates. It's a truly terrifying think to think of being wrongfully incarcerated.
What do you do in your current position at UIS?
As Legal Director of the Post-Conviction DNA Testing Program, I work on cases where there is a reasonable possibility that DNA testing may prove that a person has been wrongfully convicted. I spend a lot of my time supervising students here at UIS and also law students at U of I Champaign and SIU Law School in Carbondale as they work on the cases; answering their questions, giving them direction, brainstorming with them and in other ways overseeing and directing these cases.
So I'm a student. What would you give me to do?
In most cases, I start by giving you a partial file. I tell you to track down:
To get these documents you will have to talk to the lawyers who have been involved previously, the clerk who can help you find the actual evidence, the court reporters, the moms and other relatives, and the inmate himself. You'll have to discover if the evidence is still in the county, somewhere in the basement of a clerk's office, or filed away in the basement of the sheriff's office. And that's only the beginning. Once you get the documents, you'll have to review them, research the legal issues, and write summary statements, all with my input and advice on how to proceed. All of this has to happen before we can decide whether the case looks like one that will benefit from DNA testing.
If we think the case you're working on is a "good case" (one where DNA testing might lead to exoneration), then we file a motion in court to have the judge order the prosecutors or police - whoever has the evidence - to turn it over to a lab that we hire to do DNA testing. That's when we might be able to prove someone's innocence.
Students spend a lot of time with their noses pressed up against a computer screen or buried in a paper transcript. It is all very crucial, and prepares students well for what legal work requires, but it is still tedious.
How is the Grant progressing?
The money that we received in the Grant funds cases where there is a reasonable possibility that DNA evidence could make a difference in the outcome of the case. But only about 10% of serious felony cases involve any kind of biological evidence from which DNA testing can be done. That leaves 90% of cases where DNA testing is not possible.
So while we have a good deal of money and resources to work on the DNA cases, our funding to work on the other cases - the vase majority of cases - is minimal at best. We are very grateful to those who have donated before. Even with these gifts, however, our Project is truly a year-to-year effort where we get by on a shoestring budget. So there's an obvious need for increased support.