The Exoneration Project: Four Wins and Counting

Law students help free wrongfully convicted inmates
Janan Hanna
University of Chicago News Office
June 18, 2012

More than 17 years ago, Harold Richardson was arrested and later convicted for a crime he did not commit.

Kristin McKeon was then a grade school student in Connecticut.

Their paths crossed late last year when McKeon, JD’12, became part of a team of lawyers who won Richardson’s release from prison, using DNA evidence to show another man had committed the crime.

McKeon is one of about a dozen students each quarter who participate in the University of Chicago Law School’s Exoneration Project, a clinic that gives students hands-on experience representing prisoners seeking post-conviction relief. Students do it all — from voting on which cases the clinic should accept to writing briefs to standing before a judge — under the supervision of experienced, licensed attorneys.

“You’re doing something to help people,” says McKeon, who argued before a judge that Richardson, now 34, should be released. “With my other classes, you’re taking in information and being analytical, and it will all come in handy down the road.”

Since 2008, the Exoneration Project has helped earn the release of four prisoners — most recently, the May 30 dismissal of charges against James Kluppelberg, who had been convicted of arson and murder based on flawed evidence.

Students are guided by the project’s staff attorneys Tara Thompson, JD’03, Elizabeth Wang, JD’05, and Russell Ainsworth. Thompson explains that the goal of the clinic is to engage students in cases that many full-time attorneys simply don’t take, and to instill the importance of pro-bono work.

“There are very few people in the private bar who represent these people,” Thompson says, adding that the typical client is someone without means. “Students are learning how to do the work that needs to be done. But for the University and the students, they wouldn’t have an avenue for relief.”

Learning Duty and Providing Dignity

The clinic got its start thanks to the efforts of Jon Loevy, who staffs the clinic with attorneys from his Chicago civil rights firm Loevy & Loevy. But the students do most of the heavy lifting, which is no easy task: Witnesses are hard to find or their memories have faded, the legal process can move at a snail’s pace, writing briefs can be challenging, and standing before a judge for the very first time can make even the brightest law student weak-kneed.

But in arguing before the judge, McKeon says: “I know that what I was saying was really mattering in the moment.”

McKeon and others receive course credit for their efforts. But both McKeon and Casey Potter, JD’12, say it is the practical experience that drives them to log hours pouring over court records, conducting interviews, and drafting motions in pursuit of the truth.

Potter logged 150 hours during Spring Quarter investigating the case of a convicted arsonist whom she firmly believes is innocent. In addition to all the legal work involved in handling a post-conviction case, Potter became a student of the science of fire, absorbing everything she could on the topic and speaking with a national arson expert. And this was on top of her course schedule, which included patent law, federal habeas corpus law, and retail corporate law. Earlier this month, she was preparing habeas petitions in state and federal court for the prisoner, who was arrested when he was 14.

“What I love about being a clinical student is that you learn these areas of law and you get to apply them,” says Potter, who will be working for a judge in Texas after graduation. “We take depositions, affidavits; we investigate.” And she tries to call or visit the prisoner she’s representing once a month.

“Just by representing someone, you can give him a sense of dignity,” she says. “I think I came to law school thinking it was a privilege. But (the clinic) has given me the sense of duty to indigent people. We have a duty to help people who can not afford a lawyer.”

McKeon says she hopes to work in the public interest sector after law school, specifically doing post-conviction work.

Four Wins and Counting

The results are concrete. After Richardson’s release, lawyers from the Project helped him learn how to use a mobile phone, a computer, and, they found him a program in Indiana where he could get his GED. The lawyers were present when he received his certificate recently from a program sponsored by the Indiana Department of Workforce Development. He is also getting reacquainted with his siblings, nieces, and nephews, he says.

“I love working with them,” Richardson says of the project attorneys. Now living in South Bend, Ind. with his mother, Richardson is taking college preparatory courses in math and English. “They are warm, whole-hearted people. They accept you with open arms; anything they can do to help you, they do it.”

Typically, the process of deciding whether to take a case starts when the Exoneration Project receives a letter or call from a prisoner, or a recommendation from the state appellate defender’s office. Since it was founded, the Project has helped earn the release of four prisoners, often based on new evidence of their innocence:

  • Kluppelberg was convicted of starting a fire that killed six people in 1984. The key witness against him recently admitted lying to avoid prison time. Advances in science also have proven the convicting arson theory to be impossible.
  • Eric Caine, who spent 25 years in prison in connection with the murder of an elderly Chicago couple, was released in March 2011. Lawyers claimed Caine's confession was coerced, introducing new evidence of police misconduct.
  • Richardson was one of four men convicted in the rape and murder of 30-year-old Nina Glover. In May 2011, tests showed that DNA taken at the time of the crime came from another man who had been convicted in the strangulation and murder of another woman.
  • James Harden’s conviction for the 1991 rape and murder of a 14-year-old southwest suburban girl was vacated, and Harden was subsequently released. Again, DNA testing linked another man—a serial offender who was previously convicted of rape—to the crime. He was released in November 2011.

In addition, Thompson says the Exoneration Project is currently working on five additional cases and is handling two appeals.

Thompson says students interested in criminal law and reform of the justice system are good candidates, but anyone is eligible to take the course.

“We have students who like to solve mysteries and some of these cases are about solving mysteries,” she says. “You just have to be invested and the kind of person who can leave your prejudices at the door.”

Faculty: 
Tara Thompson
Faculty: 
Russell Ainsworth
Faculty: 
Jon Loevy