Italia Patti, ’14: A Passion for Justice Helps Clients Win Clemency

Last March, President Obama commuted the federal prison sentences of 61 people. Three of those were clients of a project supervised in part by Italia Patti, ’14. That wasn’t all: in December, a fourth client joined that list when Obama commuted his sentence, too.

From 2014 to 2016, Patti was the Justice Franklin D. Cleckley Fellow at the West Virginia Innocence Project at the West Virginia University College of Law. As part of that role, she supervised clinic students who assisted prisoners with clemency requests through Clemency Project 2014, a federal program to expedite clemency reviews for inmates who likely would have received shorter sentences today, and who meet other criteria, including having served more than ten years and having no history of violence in or out of prison. Patti and the clinic students also handled wrongful convictions and other matters.

Patti, whose work was overseen by Valena Beety, ’06, chair of the West Virginia Innocence Project and deputy director of WVU’s clinical law program, was the second of three Law School students to receive the Cleckley Fellowship. The fellowship is a partnership between the Law School and the WVU School of Law that is funded in part by a generous donation from William Von Hoene, ’80, and his wife Nikki, through the Charlotte Von Hoene Fellowship Fund.

“The Cleckley Fellowship provided me with an incredible experience, far beyond what a new graduate could reasonably hope for in most other situations,” Patti said.

Patti manifested a passion for justice before she attended the Law School. As a University of Chicago undergraduate, she held a human rights internship and tutored Chicago youth. Her commitment to social justice and her interest in becoming a lawyer were fueled a course she took as an undergraduate, “American Law and the Rhetoric of Race,” taught by Dennis Hutchinson, who is the William Rainey Harper Professor in the College and a senior lecturer in the Law School.

After graduating from the College, she worked for two and a half years as a paralegal at Loevy & Loevy, where she supported the Exoneration Project and assisted with other civil rights cases, including class action lawsuits challenging unconstitutional police practices and unconstitutional conditions of confinement.

While at the Law School, her summer jobs included work with LAF, the largest provider of legal aid in Cook County; Cabrini Green Legal Aid; and the Public Defender Service in Washington, DC. With the Civil Rights and Police Accountability Project of the Mandel Legal Aid Clinic, she and another clinic student, Saul Cohen, ’14, presented the oral arguments before an Illinois appeals court panel that ruled in favor of their client, declaring that the public should have access to Chicago Police Department records of officer misconduct.

“Saul and I worked on that case for two years, and before us, previous clinic students had worked on it since 2009, so getting that outcome was a huge thrill,” she said. “Craig Futterman made it all possible. He was a phenomenal teacher and mentor, and he’s still an inspiration and a role model for me.”

Patti, who is now clerking for Judge Karen Nelson Moore at the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, met her husband, Seth Mayer, while they were undergraduates. They both majored in philosophy, and Mayer, who earned a PhD at Northwestern while Patti was at the Law School, is now a tenure-track faculty member at Manchester University in Indiana. They jointly authored a 2015 law review article, “Beyond the Numbers: Toward a Moral Vision for Criminal Justice Reform.”

“The College and the Law School were all I had hoped for and more,” Patti said. “I expected a rigorous education in an environment where ideas and action were both highly valued, and I got that. What I hadn’t fully expected was how much fun I would have and how many strong relationships I would form—friendships that I believe will continue for many years. Chicago was an exceptional experience, for which I am very grateful.”