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January 14, 2014

J. Roderick MacArthur Justice Center at Northwestern Law

by Dan Rodriguez

A remarkable center, as its director, Locke Bowman, describes it:

The MacArthur Center is a “law firm like no other,” as the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin once reported.  The Center was founded in 1985 by the family of J. Roderick MacArthur to fight for the civil and human rights of persons in the criminal justice system whose interests might otherwise not be vindicated.  We have become one of the premier civil rights organizations in the United States by taking cases that others wouldn’t or couldn’t litigate.

In the past several years, the MacArthur Center has won over $45 million in settlements and verdicts in lawsuits in which the Center has represented persons who were convicted or charged with crimes they did not commit.  More important than these monetary victories, though, is the work of Center attorneys in a variety of different cases that have systemically challenged features of the Illinois criminal justice system.  For example, Center attorneys are currently engaged in litigation to reform the procedures for deciding whether to re-incarcerate persons accused of violating the conditions of parole.  A recent MacArthur lawsuit helped end the use of closed circuit video to conduct bond hearings for persons arrested by the Chicago Police.  In another case, we ended a Chicago Police practice of detaining witnesses against their will and holding them for questioning.  We won the appointment of a Cook County Special Prosecutor to investigate the death of David Koschman by persuading the court that the original investigation may have been tainted by political interference.  In earlier litigation, the Center attorneys persuaded the Cook County court to appoint a Special Prosecutor to investigate criminal charges against Jon Burge, a disgraced Chicago Police officer who systematically tortured African American suspects in his custody on the south side of Chicago.  We have represented several of Burge’s victims and are currently using class action litigation to win hearings for all still-incarcerated persons with potential claims that their convictions rest on confessions that Burge tortured from them.  Another MacArthur case helped to dramatically improve the handling of criminal appeals brought by indigent persons convicted within Cook County.  The list could be expanded.  None of these cases were “easy,” all were costly and labor intensive and most of them were handled without any expectation of a fee.

Following on the track record of success in Chicago, the MacArthur Center recently opened a second office in New Orleans, where our attorneys are working on similar projects, including pursuing a massive class action challenge to the treatment of prisoners in the Orleans Parish Prison and fighting for the rights of men and women on the Louisiana death row.  We have plans to open a third office this fall at the University of Mississippi in Oxford.


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