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February 2, 2012

Guest post: About last night

by dan rodriguez

(from Leslie Oster)

I’ve only been associated with Northwestern for a month, but this has definitely been a jam-packed month, with receptions in multiple cities, our move to Chicago, getting to know so many new folks.  Last night, I got to attend an event that I will be thinking about for a long time to come:  the Center on Wrongful Convictions, part of Northwestern’s Bluhm Legal Clinic, held a celebration of freedom in honor of 11 wrongfully convicted men who have been exonerated in the last three months – the single largest cluster of exonerations in any three-month period in the history of the innocence movement.   The event was in Lincoln Hall at the law school, and the room was packed.  On my way into the hall, I ran into the Center’s Assistant Director, Jennifer Linzer, who had played a key role in one of the exonerations being celebrated; she informed me that the program would start once the last exoneree arrived.  I thought to myself, “exoneree” is not a word you hear every day.  (More evidence for my observation: my computer is including a squiggly red line under each instance of the word as I write this.)  But as I learned throughout last night’s program, “exoneree” is a word one hears all the time in connection with the Center on Wrongful Convictions.  In fact, there were more than 30 exonerees in attendance at the event last night and the Center has been instrumental in more than 40 exonerations since its founding in 1998.

The overall theme of last night’s program was “all in the span of a year.”  2011 was indeed a banner year, with the Center playing a role in so many long-awaited exonerations, as well as being a driving force behind the abolition of the death penalty in Illinois.  After a few opening remarks from Rob Warden, the Executive Director of the Center, and another guy who claimed to be the “dean” of Northwestern’s law school, we heard from Larry Marshall, a co-founder and former legal director of the Center (now at Stanford).  Marshall, a legendary figure in the history of the innocence movement, reminded us that the Center’s mission is not only about exonerations, but also is aimed at fairness and justice for all accused, and at addressing structural aspects of the criminal justice system that cry out for reform.

After other introductory remarks, the main part of the program began.  The stories of four exonerees were featured; for each, one of the lawyers that worked on that case came to the podium with the exoneree and told us about the case – the crime, the circumstances of the convictions and appeals, the Center’s role.  After the lawyer told the story, the exoneree then stepped to the microphone and spoke.  I could try to describe this part of the program, but I know I can’t do it justice.  Saying that each man was dignified and humble, that each man spoke from the heart, that each expressed gratitude for the help he had received, that each commanded respect and awe from the audience – all of these things are true, but none captures the depth of feeling that each man conveyed as he stood at the microphone.  Words can’t really describe who these men are and what they’ve been through, where they are in their lives now, how they have endured unimaginable circumstances, how different the trajectory of their lives has been from what is normal for most of us.  And how they are managing to survive, without obvious bitterness or anger.  As they talked about their situations and expressed gratitude to their loyal families, to their lawyers, to the students that worked on their cases, to the staff at the Center, to the law school itself, to their fellow exonerees, well, there was not a dry eye in the house last night (or in my house right now, even just writing this).

One (underlying) theme of last night was “How awesome is Northwestern!!”  “And the Center, too!!”  Over and over throughout the night, folks who stepped to the podium announced that they were proud graduates of Northwestern’s law school.  And, each time, that announcement was met with enthusiastic cheering from the assembled crowd.  I’ve been part of the school’s community for only a month, but I have already developed a lot of purple pride, and find myself constantly impressed by Northwestern’s graduates, students, faculty, and programs.

One idea that came through loud and clear last night was about how much can be accomplished through the efforts of good, committed, talented, and hard-working people.  The lawyers give their hearts and souls to these cases, and, of course, their substantial legal expertise.   In addition to the lawyers, there are many others involved – family members of the wrongly convicted, staff members at the Center, investigators, donors, etc.  And it is the coming together of all of this – talent, commitment, resources, determination, and even luck – that makes these exonerations possible.  I kept thinking that it takes practically a perfect storm for one of these exonerations to happen, and that there are some who are less lucky even than these freed men, wrongly convicted people whose cases and circumstances don’t (or haven’t yet) come together in a way that allows for an exoneration.  And then I was thinking how strange it is to use the word “lucky” to describe someone who has gone through the life-shattering nightmare that these men have.

Another thing I learned last night is that many different lawyers have worked on these cases — some are public interest lawyers from the Center and some are lawyers from the private sector, including from firms such as Jenner & Block and DLA Piper.  For example, Terri Masherin from Jenner & Block was instrumental in pursuing Juan Rivera’s case even when it was starting to look hopeless.  (She took me to a Bulls game, so I had to give her special mention, but, really, she was instrumental.)  It is clear that this public-private partnership is one of the conditions that allows the Center to be so successful in so many cases.  I thought this was an especially important message for the current law students in the room; no matter where lawyers end up practicing, they can (and should) (and will be better off if they do) stay active in promoting the public good.

And, speaking of students, peppered throughout the audience last night were Northwestern law students – past and present – who have played a role in achieving these exonerations.  Knowing how intricate the innocence work is, and having heard from a bunch of high-powered lawyers, it was almost easy to forget that the Center on Wrongful Convictions is also a law school clinic, and that many students over the years have done important work on these cases.  Providing students with the opportunity to learn about the criminal justice system and the legal system in general, to acquire insight into how law can be used to change lives, to develop skills essential to effective lawyering – these goals are the essence of clinical legal education.  As each exoneree expressed his gratitude to the students who had worked on his case, I suspected that the thanked students felt just as much gratitude back at the Center and its clients for the opportunity to learn about the law by being involved with these interesting and important cases.

To close the event, all of the exonerees in the room were invited to the podium.  And then there was this astonishing spectacle where each man stepped to the microphone and introduced himself.  “I’m Robert and I spent 15 years in prison for a crime I didn’t commit.”  “I’m Alan and I was wrongly convicted.  I spent 30 years behind bars.”  The mix of emotions these introductions elicited – horror, amazement, sadness, joy, gratitude – is not something one feels every day.   Good thing the applause was so deafening that no one could hear the sniffles and even sobbing that these introductions elicited from the audience.  Let’s just say I wasn’t the only one who left the room dehydrated.

After the formal event, there was a reception in the law school, definitely a feel-good event.  As folks mingled, it was easy to see genuine gratitude, admiration, and, yes, even love, between the lawyers and their clients, the exonerees and their families, the exonerees and each other.  Dan and I were happy to talk to some of the exonerees, including Juan Rivera, a man with a great smile, who was just released from prison a few weeks ago, after 19 years.  At one point in the conversation, Juan stepped back and delivered a very loud whistle; immediately, another whistle returned from somewhere else in the crowded room.  When Dan and I gave Juan a puzzled look, he explained that he and Jacques Rivera (no relation, but definitely brothers) had been in prison at the same time, and they were friends.  When they needed to know where each other was, one would whistle loudly, and the other would hear the whistle and reply.  So in this jam-packed, loud room of celebrating people, Jacques and Juan were still communicating, ever-conscious of their connection.  And around them, the folks who made it possible for those whistles to resonate in an open and happy place – family members, Center leaders, lawyers, investigators & staff, all celebrating together in the atrium of the law school.

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