Lawyers partner with local programs to investigate, reverse wrongful convictions

By: John Flynn Rooney, Chicago Law Bulletin: January 23rd, 2013

After lawyers with the Exoneration Project agreed to handle his murder case, James Kluppelberg said he believed their work would lead to his freedom.

And it did.

Kluppelberg got released in May after 24 years in prison. A Cook County circuit judge dismissed charges that resulted in his conviction on six counts of first-degree murder and three counts of arson.

“If it wasn’t for them, I’d still be in prison today,” he said.

In 2007, Jon Loevy and Loevy & Loevy, teamed up with the University of Chicago Law School and started the Exoneration Project.

Since then, the law firm has paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in expenses and contributed thousands of attorney hours to help people like Kluppelberg seek exoneration, he said.

This is the first part of a series that will chronicle the work performed by law school innocence projects and volunteer lawyers who work to free the wrongly convicted

When lawyers with Loevy’s law firm and the Exoneration Project agreed to represent him, Kluppelberg said he knew “they were dedicated and because of that I would see freedom.”

The team of lawyers working on Kluppelberg’s case include Partner Russell R. Ainsworth and Associate Gayle M. Horn, both at Loevy & Loevy, and Winston & Strawn LLP Associate Karl A. Leonard.

“They worked tirelessly for free,” Kluppelberg said. “It’s so humbling to have someone believe in you that much.”

At Kluppelberg’s trial, a former Chicago Fire Department official theorized that someone started a blaze by setting a pile of newspapers or rags on fire. He said the burn patterns displayed arson.

In post-conviction proceedings, Kluppelberg’s lawyers retained an expert witness who found that fire science changed significantly since the 1980s. The expert debunked the theory offered by the former fire department official, which helped prove Kluppelberg’s innocence.

“The problems associated with wrongful convictions are devastating and heartbreaking,” Loevy said.

“When a lawyer succeeds in freeing an innocent man, there’s very few more gratifying professional experiences.”

Filling A Need

When Jon Loevy got involved in the Exoneration Project, he wanted to fill a void.

“There’s a need for lawyers to examine wrongful convictions,” he said. “The need vastly outstrips the supply of lawyer time.”

The firm’s lawyers team up with law students on these cases.

The Exoneration Project’s work resulted in freedom for four inmates, said Tara E. Thompson, a Loevy & Loevy associate who spends the majority of her time working on the Exoneration Project.

The project involves second- and third-year law students who work closely with the wrongly convicted and lawyers on post-conviction litigation. Today, nine students participate.

“With assistance and guidance, law students … can perform meaningful work for the clients,” Thompson said. “They play a critical role in the successes our clients have.”

From 1989 to date, 1,059 exonerations occurred in the U.S., the National Registry of Exonerations says.

And, 113 of those exonerations occurred in Illinois, said Rob Warden, executive director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions, which is affiliated with Northwestern University School of Law.

In 1992, Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld founded the Innocence Project in New York at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, becoming the first such project affiliated with a law school. That project only works on cases involving DNA evidence, Warden said.

The innocence movement remains important because of the 1,059 documented exonerations nationwide, he said.

“The men and women we’ve helped free languished more than 600 (combined) years behind bars as a result of unjust convictions,” Warden said.

Illinois’ Movement

In 1998, Lawrence C. Marshall, then a Northwestern University School of Law professor, and others organized the National Conference on Wrongful Convictions and the Death Penalty at the law school.

A gathering of about 30 exonerees and a total of 1,500 people attended the conference, Marshall said.

“This event brought international attention to the issues in ways that had never happened before,” said Marshall, now a Stanford Law School professor and associate dean who heads its Mills Legal Clinic.

Northwestern launched its Center on Wrongful Convictions the following year. Today, 42 law students do work for the center.

After Northwestern established its program, other Illinois law schools, including the University of Chicago Law School, followed.

In 2001, the University of Illinois at Springfield created the Downstate Innocence Project, now known as the Illinois Innocence Project. That project involved undergraduate and master’s degree students working on cases that did not involve DNA or capital offenses, said Larry Golden, the project’s executive director.

In 2010, after receiving federal grant money, the project hired John J. Hanlon as its legal director, Golden said. The project then started working with the University of Illinois College of Law, Southern Illinois University School of Law and Northern Illinois University College of Law.

“We think we’re building a fairly unique model for doing this without being based at one law school,” Golden said, adding that the project’s work resulted in five wrongly convicted individuals gaining freedom since its start.

University of Illinois law school officials decided that working on the project would provide a good fit for students, said professor J. Steven Beckett, director of trial advocacy.

For example, since 2010, students worked on a post-conviction petition in a multi-defendant criminal case in Macon County. The students get paired with practicing lawyers on each matter.

“So, they are working pretty much as a law clerk with a lawyer on a pending case,” Beckett said. “I think there’s a real pragmatic benefit” for the students.

Marshall and Scheck conducted the first gathering in 2000 of what became known as The Innocence Network. Representatives from about 15 institutions running or considering launching innocence projects attended.

The Innocence Network formally launched in 2005. It now consists of 65 members, the majority of which are affiliated with law schools.

The members include The Center on Wrongful Convictions, the Illinois Innocence Project and Life After Innocence program at Loyola University Chicago School of Law.

As for the network’s growth, Marshall said he did not expect its membership to grow extensively.

“It’s been especially remarkable and to see the extent to which law schools have embraced it,” he said.

While he sat in prison for 20 years, Kluppelberg said he could not get lawyers or others to listen to his story. But that changed when the lawyers with the Exoneration Project took up his case.

“They gave me my life back,” he said. “There’s no greater gift that can be given to a person than a new lease on life.”