Jayde Schlesinger | Every Day a Step Closer
Over the years, the Illinois Innocence Project (IIP) has contributed to 11 exonerations of wrongfully convicted people. The Project is a great source of pride for UIS alumni and friends because it transforms lives and contributes so powerfully to the Public Good – another Reaching Stellar campaign priority. What you may not realize is that the Project also transforms the lives of students like Jayde Schlesinger who work with the Project.
Jayde Schlesinger was scrolling through course options her first semester at UIS, when a class called Conviction of the Innocent caught her eye.
She didn’t know it then, but the class would change her future.
During community college, Jayde had worked as a receptionist for a family firm in Ottawa, Illinois. Her employers encouraged her interest in law, even including her as part of the team when they went to court so she could see that side of the profession.
Their encouragement worked. After community college, she enrolled at UIS, majoring in legal studies and political science. She thought at the time that she would go into corporate law.
Then came the Conviction of the Innocent class taught by Illinois Innocence Project attorney Lauren Myerscough-Mueller. Hearing the exonerees’ stories had a powerful effect on Jayde.
“I thought corporate law sounded interesting,” she said, “but after hearing about so many stories of wrongful convictions, that all changed, and at the end of the class, I applied for an internship with the Illinois Innocence Project.”
Since working with the Project, criminal law has become her passion: “With criminal law, I’ll be fighting for a person’s life. I know now that I want to help others who are struggling to help themselves during what could be the worst experience of their lives. I learned that by working for the Illinois Innocence Project.”
Working for the Project
The work that students like Jayde do is crucial to the Project. Every case begins with an applicant sending a claim of innocence to the Project, along with a request for an application. Once the application is returned, a staff member completes an in-depth screening and writes a short memo based on the information provided in the application. If the claim looks like it might have merit, the case is assigned to a student for review, along with any documents that came with the application.
At that point, the applicant’s hope of eventual exoneration is in the student’s hands.
And those documents that students review? Think boxes, not folders.
“For my first case,” Jayde said, “there were trial transcripts with every word that was said during trial—at least 2,000 pages. Add to that police reports, conviction documents and appellate documents—so probably around 3,000 pages in all.”
Jayde begins her case reviews “at the beginning,” with the police reports. What happened? What do they say? Then she moves to trial transcripts. What was the evidence, and is there any evidence that could exonerate the person? Misidentification by eyewitnesses and DNA evidence are two possibilities for which Jayde watches. She then summarizes what every witness said during trial. “For that first case, the transcript report alone filled 26 pages,” she said.
After more than a year, Jayde is still working on the case, along with two others. As she works, Larry Golden, founding director, and Christine Ferree, case coordinator and student supervisor, check in with Jayde, and about once a month, everyone at the Illinois Innocence Project gathers to discuss cases.
“Case evaluations are great,” Jayde said. “Sometimes I feel like I know a case too well. I need to do my work so that someone who doesn’t know anything about the case understands what happened.”
Once students finish summarizing cases, their reports go to a Project attorney, who reviews it and ultimately decides whether to move the case forward. Occasionally, after an extensive review and evaluation, the case may be closed by a staff attorney.
Jayde is quick to recommend the Project to other students, though she does admit to one downside of the work: “Some of the stories are just so sad. You read an application, and it seems like such a good case, but you know it might be a year before someone can evaluate it because we have so many other cases waiting. It’s heartbreaking.”
What’s next for Jayde
Jayde graduated in May 2018 and is now working on her master’s degree in Public Administration at UIS. As a member of the Graduate Public Service Internship Program (GPSI), she works for the Department of Insurance in its legal office. Her work for the Project has prepared her well for the many statutes and rules she has to read.
“I’m so happy to be doing this,” she said of her GPSI internship. “I’m learning a totally different side of the law, and it’s teaching me so much.”
Even so, she has not left the Illinois Innocence Project behind. She now works 8-10 hours a week as a volunteer, and after more than a year, she is looking forward to finishing her initial case report: “I sent out a last FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) to the police department for some documents, and once I get those and go through them, that will be my last step in the case!”
More than exonerations
Exonerations are the end goal for a lot of the work that occurs at the Illinois Innocence Project, and with every exoneration, students have had an important role.
But the work doesn’t change just the lives of innocent people who have been wrongfully convicted and imprisoned. It changes students’ lives as well. As students help move the process along toward exoneration, the work gives them a greater sense of their contribution to the Public Good and their value as agents for change.
“I am excited to go in to the Project every single day,” Jayde said, “because I know I’m doing something to help people who can’t help themselves. It’s such a long process from someone first writing the Project to possibly being exonerated, but every day is a step closer to the outcome that we all want. I may never see the end of my cases. I may graduate and move somewhere else, but I will always know that I have helped along the way.”
The Public Good: A Reaching Stellar campaign priority…Because we are all on this journey together
The Illinois Innocence Project continues to do its work because of the generosity of donors. Please consider joining these special donors by adding your support to the Project. You can make a gift online by using the Donate button on this page. You could also consider a scholarship to be awarded to students like Jayde who work for the Project.