Eileen Ho, JD’12, left, and Jenni James, JD’12, proved James Harden’s innocence. (Photography by Eva Nagao/Exoneration Project)

Innocence won

A Law School clinic works to free the wrongfully convicted.

On the night of April 18, 1990, taxi driver Billy G. Williams, 44, was found dead in his cab, shot in the head on Chicago’s South Side. Two days later, 20-year-old Shawn Whirl was arrested and confessed to the murder. He pleaded guilty and has been in prison ever since.

Rising third-year law student Caitlin Brown wants him out. “I really believe that Shawn is innocent,” Brown says. “There were a lot of errors in [Whirl’s] confession that didn’t completely line up with what was found at the scene.”

Since September 2011, she’s been studying his case—the interrogation, the police statements, the evidence—as part of the Exoneration Project, a University of Chicago Law School clinic that seeks to free wrongfully convicted prisoners.

In Whirl’s case, that means investigating his confession, made after allegedly being tortured by a detective in the Chicago Police Department’s Area 2, a division then notorious for systemic abuse. Whirl’s claim of being coerced into a confession were found credible this summer by the Illinois Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission, which was shut down soon after issuing its ruling due to state budget cuts. Beatings and other violent tactics to force confessions were common from 1972 to 1991 under former Lieutenant Jon Burge, who was convicted in 2010 for lying about years of torture.  

Without Whirl’s confession in 1990, the prosecution had a weak case: no witness, no murder weapon, and a defendant with no criminal record. The only forensic evidence linking him to the crime was a fingerprint on the cab’s passenger side door.

Whirl later testified to being tortured and entered a motion to suppress his original confession, but it was denied. When the prosecution agreed to waive its request for the death penalty in exchange for a guilty plea, Whirl took the deal. His sentence: 60 years.

His story is typical of the cases the Exoneration Project tackles. “A lot of these people have been in jail for ten, 20 years,” says Brown, “and they’ve been asking for help everywhere.” The clinic gives future litigators an opportunity to respond. Supervised by staff attorneys from Chicago civil-rights firm Loevy & Loevy, the Exoneration Project has secured the release of four wrongfully convicted prisoners since its 2008 founding. Most recently, the project helped free James Kluppelberg, 46, who had been wrongfully convicted of murder and arson in the 1984 killing of a mother and her five children.

According to the National Registry of Exonerations, a joint project of the University of Michigan Law School and the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law, there have been 945 exonerations in the United States since 1989. More than 100 of those were in Illinois, where the Exoneration Project focuses most of its efforts.

“There’s a question as to how much imperfection in our criminal-justice system we can tolerate as a society,” says Tara Thompson, JD’03, a staff attorney for the project, along with Elizabeth Wang, JD’05, and Russell Ainsworth, AB’01. “We know there are going to be errors, but I can only really be comfortable with that if there’s a way for people to seek relief after the fact.” The project, she says, “is really stepping in to fill that gap and make the system tolerable.”

For Law School students, the clinic offers experience investigating cases, drafting motions, and arguing before the court. The goal, Thompson says, “is for students as much as possible to really do the work.” Teams of two or three are assigned to each client’s case.

The clinic counts for course credit and has rolling admission, with roughly 12 to 14 students at a time, some staying on for a year or even two. “Getting to be involved in a case from start to finish is something that’s really unique about the clinic,” Brown says. “After being involved with the case for a year, I’m not going to leave this person who’s counting on me,” says Brown, who wrote and presented the original evaluation of Whirl’s case. When a potential client contacts the project’s staff, students research all past documentation and court proceedings, present their findings to clinic colleagues, and then vote on whether to represent the individual.

To select a case, the only official standard is that students must believe the person is innocent. Beyond that, Thompson says, they might consider whether they can provide “meaningful relief”—for example, choosing someone like Whirl, who has decades remaining in his sentence, over someone with a year left. Ultimately, Thompson stresses, “it comes down to students’ belief that this is a case where potentially an injustice was done.”

Kluppelberg’s case is one example. Headed by Karl Leonard, JD’09, an attorney with Winston & Strawn, a student legal team did extensive background investigation and turned up “this really obscure local paper,” the Back of the Yards Journal, that gave an account of a woman confessing to the crime, says Thompson. New scientific evidence about fire behavior also bolstered Kluppelberg’s innocence claims, she says, but “that newspaper article broke the case wide open.”

On May 31 Kluppelberg walked out of Menard Correctional Center a free man. “It’s an amazing feeling to know it was students who were able to help get him released,” Thompson says. “They know that the work they did resulted in someone basically having his life back.”

For Brown, who plans to become a litigator, working with the Exoneration Project has fostered a sense of professional responsibility. After all, she says, “the best way to stop wrongful convictions is to make sure they don’t happen in the first place.”