Law students counsel the needy through legal aid clinic

The University of Chicago Mandel Legal Aid Clinic filed a federal civil rights lawsuit two weeks ago against six Chicago police officers and the City of Chicago on behalf of a South-Side human rights worker. The case brings attention to the clinic's unusual goals and achievements.

"Even as a clinic where law students, supervised by clinical professors, do much of the work, we're still able to serve our clients by getting them relief through the courts," said Tara Thompson, a second year law student who has been working in the clinic for over a year. "even though we're just students, we're still able to serve the community while learning how to be better and more socially-conscious attorneys."

The Edwin F. Mandel Legal Aid Clinic was established in 1957 as a joint project between the Legal Aid Bureau of United Charities and the University of Chicago Law School. Its purpose is to provide quality legal counsel to people who lack the means to obtain other help. "We only represent the people who cannot acquire legal representation otherwise," said Craig Futterman, an assistant clinical professor of law at the Mandel Clinic.

The first clinic to integrate law students fully into every aspect of a case, the Mandel Clinic has become a paradigm of the benefits resulting from such integration. Not only does the arrangement serve as an opportunity for law students to gain practical experience, but the clinic's clients also are able to receive quality pro bono representation. The program supplements students' academic curriculum by allowing them to experience interviewing clients, investigating cases, taking care of adverse parties, and trying cases.

Professors also hope that the law students will take the initiative to do pro bono work in their careers, beginning with becoming involved in the Mandel Clinic. "It is the ethical responsibility of every lawyer to devote a fraction of his/her time to pro bono work," Futterman said.

The clinic is organized into four projects: the Criminal and Juvenile Justice Project, the Employment Discrimination Project, the Mental Health Advocacy Project, and the Police Accountability Project. Each project labors to correct the Illinois judicial system in order to protect needy Chicagoans not only through court activity, but also by community action.

"Although we're a legal aid clinic, the non-litigation activities like the Civil Rights Project that we've been involved in have helped me see that long-term positive change comes not just through lawsuits but also through community activism and other kinds of approaches to problems," Thompson said.

The case that the Mandel Legal Clinic recently accepted has produced a civil rights lawsuit in U.S. district courts on behalf of Kenya Richmond. Richmond is employed by the Neighborhood Conservation Corps (NCC) at Stateway Gardens public housing development on south State Street.

The lawsuit alleges that Richmond, trained by the Stateway Civil Rights Project to document police activity in an effort to decrease police abuses, was arrested on March 19 last year because of his work for the Project. That day, while working for the Neighborhood Conservation Corps, a Stateway Gardens community organization, Richmond witnessed a Chicago police car jumping the curb and hitting a pedestrian who was trying to flee.

After the police officers arrested the fallen pedestrian, Richmond began to take notes on the details of the event as part of his duties for the Stateway Civil Rights Project. Seeing that the police were handling the pedestrian roughly despite his physical pain from getting run over by the police car, RIchmond shouted out to the police officers that the pedestrian should receive medical treatment.

The police responded to Richmond by destroying his documentation of the scene and arresting him. On the drive to the police station, the police officers allegedly used racially abusive language, telling Richmond, "You need to call your man, Jesse [Jackson]."

Richmond was charged with dealing drugs, and although the criminal charges were dismissed, Richmond decided to file a lawsuit.

"I've known him [RIchmond] for years through community events. He is an extraordinary guy. He grew up in Stateway, and works in the building outside of which his father was shot," said Futterman, Richmond's attorney. "It is particularly hurtful that this has happened to him despite everything that he has overcome. Kenya, to me, is a hero."

Thompson also feels a bond to Richmond, who happens to be the age of her law school peers. "I'm excited about being able to work on Mr. Richmond's case because I think it's important for us as law students and for the clinic as part of the South Side community to stand up for people in this community who are exercising their constitutional rights," Thompson said.

As Futterman awaits the police's response to the lawsuit in order to continue his prosecution, he remains hopeful that Richmond's case will help curb police brutality in Chicago. "The ultimate goal of this project is to put an end to this stuff and build relationships between the community members and police officers," he said.