Corey Batchelor was only 19 when Chicago police detectives arrested him in June 1989 and coerced him into confessing—falsely—to robbing and murdering the wife of a retired Chicago police officer. This “square little kid” from Chicago’s South Side had no prior experience with the police and was guilty of nothing other than loving music, dreaming of becoming a DJ, and desiring to go away to college. Ultimately, DNA evidence would exonerate Mr. Batchelor, and a civil rights lawsuit brought by Mr. Batchelor and the Law School’s Civil Rights and Police Accountability Project would result in a $14 million settlement—the single largest wrongful conviction settlement per year of incarceration in Chicago history.
I worked on this historic lawsuit as a student in the clinic. And I saw pieces of my own story in Mr. Batchelor’s. His young life, before the arrest and before the 15 years he spent in prison, was not that different from my own.
In September of 2020, as a second-year law student, I joined a team of lawyers and law students, led by Clinical Professor Craig Futterman and lawyers at the Loevy & Loevy civil rights law firm, that was fighting to achieve some measure of justice for Mr. Batchelor. In January 2022, we won the $14 million settlement to Mr. Batchelor and his childhood friend and coplaintiff, Kevin Bailey, who was also wrongfully convicted as a result of similar abuse by the same detectives who beat Mr. Batchelor. These detectives worked at the Chicago Police Department’s Area 2 Headquarters with police commander Jon Burge, who was known for his use of torture, physical abuse, and coercion to extract confessions from Black Chicagoans in CPD custody.
Joining the team working on Mr. Batchelor’s case felt like jumping onto a moving train. The case was well into discovery, and there were many documents I had to review to catch up. As I began poring over files, I realized that working on Mr. Batchelor’s case would be both a professional learning experience and something deeply personal. The case file painted the picture of a young Black male growing up with his family on the South Side of Chicago. A story similar to my own. It revealed a history of trauma, abuse, and racism on the South Side of Chicago, where I grew up. I currently live in the Roseland-Pullman neighborhood, just a few blocks away from CPD Area 2 Headquarters, the now-infamous “House of Screams” where the abuse of Mr. Batchelor and the torture of so many other young Black men took place. Reading through the case documents was like a history lesson about patterns of abuse that have occurred in my neighborhood.
As I dug in, it quickly became clear to me that practicing law is a team sport. Professor Futterman’s leadership and guidance were invaluable. Each clinical meeting included strategy sessions in which our team would ponder difficult questions about how specific facts and evidence in our case could help or harm our goal of winning Mr. Batchelor’s case. Through these strategy sessions, Professor Futterman taught us the importance of thinking creatively, anticipating opposing arguments, and preparing thoroughly. Our clinical team would often join larger meetings with civil rights lawyers from Loevy & Loevy and the People’s Law Office, a Chicago firm that focuses on civil rights. My time reviewing documents and participating in depositions helped me understand the volume of pretrial discovery. The memos, legal briefs, timelines, and witness charts I read and composed illustrated the complexity of litigation and showed me how much work lawyers, and law students, must devote to preparing for trial.
"I often wonder what amazing things Corey would have achieved if his youth wasn’t stolen from him. I often wonder how Corey would have surprised the world."— James Jones, '22
In May of 2021, I had my first chance to meet the client I had only known through court and medical documents. During a four-hour interview, Corey spoke openly about his experiences. Corey discussed being a young person in prison and described how “you’re on your own” despite the family you have on the outside. He spoke about the dreadful conditions of prison life and about unmet basic needs like dental care. He spoke about being unable to obtain a temporary release to attend his grandmother’s funeral. Corey also discussed his experiences and struggles after his release from prison. Corey didn’t return to his life as a 19-year-old with dreams in front of him, but to a world of limited opportunities for work, housing, and school—marked as a convict. Even though he was no longer living behind bars or locked up in solitary confinement, Corey has never felt free. He talked about his struggles finding employment and a place to live, how experiences from prison still haunt him, and the dreams he wishes he had achieved. Our client interview was a powerful reminder of the human aspect of being a lawyer.
As a young Black male who grew up on the South Side of Chicago and still lives on the far South Side, I see many parallels between Corey’s story and mine. As a 19-year-old kid, I, like Corey, didn’t have experience with the criminal justice system. I had no lawyers in my family who could guide me if I was coerced into confessing to a crime I didn’t commit. Corey is passionate about music and, before his wrongful imprisonment, had dreams of being a DJ. I also have a passion for music and attended Chicago’s first public performing arts high school, the Chicago High School for the Arts (ChiArts), where I focused on piano performance.
On the day of the murder, Corey walked to a park and called a university to ask about financial aid, just as I had made similar calls as a teen in the hopes of attending college. In a way, Corey is me, had my dreams of going to college been stolen. And I am him, had he been able to go off to college and chase his dreams. As a poor Black kid from the South Side of Chicago, most people wouldn’t have looked at me at 19 years old and seen a future lawyer.
I often wonder what amazing things Corey would have achieved if his youth wasn’t stolen from him. I often wonder how Corey would have surprised the world.
We met with Corey for more than three hours on the day that we finalized the settlement. Perhaps for the first time since he was that “square little kid,” Corey began to set goals and imagine a future over which he had real agency. After the meeting, Professor Futterman told us, “This is the first time that I have ever seen Corey imagine being free.”
As I begin to look beyond law school to passing the bar and beginning my legal career, the experiences I’ve had working on Corey’s case and serving as a student in the Mandel Legal Aid Clinic will remain with me. Being a member of “Team Batchelor” has shown me the determination, sacrifice, and hard work necessary to create change in our legal system. It also reminded me of the humanity of lawyering and many of the reasons I wanted to go to law school.
No amount of money can give Corey back the years of his youth that he lost in 1989. However, I am proud to have played a role in helping Corey obtain a historic settlement that can help him find a way forward.
James Jones graduated from the University of Chicago Law School in June 2022 and will join Winston & Strawn LLP as a litigation associate after completing a Public Interest Law Initiative (PILI) Fellowship at Lawyers for the Creative Arts. He spent two years working on the Civil Rights and Police Accountability Project, which is part of the Law School’s Mandel Legal Aid Clinic.