Longtime Clinic Case Reaches Its End
The Edwin F. Mandel Legal Aid Clinic's Criminal and Juvenile Justice Project began representing Italo Sanders when he was 16 years old, accused of killing a man based on the word of a 7-year-old eyewitness in Chicago's Robert Taylor Homes.
Eighteen years later, the Clinic has argued what may be Sanders' last appeal before the Illinois State Supreme Court. The case, the Clinic's longest-running and one that has been touched by dozens of students, may be coming to a close.
"The students have done a fantastic job over the years," said Randolph Stone, Director of the Mandel Clinic from 1991 to 2001 and current Clinical Professor of Law. "Something we try to teach in the Clinic is collaboration, and this case exemplifies that quality. From looking at the file, students can see everyone who came before them and their contributions."
The most recent appeal centered on Sanders' right to a fair and impartial jury. Shortly before his trial in 1994, prosecutors announced they would present evidence tying the shooting's motive to gangs, but the judge refused to question jurors about gang bias during voir dire. The Illinois Supreme Court ruled six years later in People v. Strain that jurors must be questioned about gang bias when gang evidence is central to a case.
Law School students Hewot Shankute, '11, Neil Anderson, '11, Sharon Yecies, '11, Kiersten Fletcher, '10, and Greg Cheyne, '10, researched res judicata, retroactivity, cause and prejudice versus culpable negligence to write briefs they hoped would convince the Illinois Supreme Court that the Strain case applied and Sanders' right to a fair trial had been violated. The students also organized mock arguments to prepare Stone. (The court declined to allow students to deliver the arguments.)
Sanders and his family appreciate the tenacity Clinic students have shown during almost two decades of representation. A call from Sanders' mother, Wanda Byles, initially brought the case to the Clinic's attention. Shortly after her son's arrest in 1992, she asked the Clinic about representation. Stone and Clinical Professor of Law Herschella Conyers agreed to take the case because it fit the Criminal and Juvenile Justice Project's mission of providing representation to juveniles charged in court as adults and it presented a number of issues that would provide a learning experience for students, Stone said.
"For some students, the idea of representing someone charged with a serious violent offense is daunting," he sai.d "But over the years, the students have met Italo and have gotten a lot out of working on the case."
Two 2L students spent their spring break assisting Stone and Conyers during the trial, which was the Clinic's first jury trial in a murder case. Sanders was convicted then sentenced to serve 40 years in prison. Through the years, students participated in a frenzy of research and brief-writing that surrounded each appeal. Every time new students became involved they built on the work of those who came before them.
The court will rule on the latest appeal in the coming months, but its history of denying Sanders' prior appeals isn't an encouraging sign, Stone said. Additionally, Sanders has been in prison long enough that he's close to completing his sentence. The Clinic likely is done filing appeals in the case, Stone said.
"Part of the learning process is not only the ultimate result, but the process and the struggle," he said. "A case like this one really shines a light on how the legal system works and gets students to think about options and the importance of doing your best work at every stage in order to have the opportunity to get to the next stage."