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At the edge of dawn each day, Gary Gauger awoke to the same nightmare: He was on death row for a crime he did not commit.

"I'd open my eyes and see those prison bars and realize it wasn't a dream," says Gauger, an organic vegetable farmer who spent three years in Joliet's Stateville Correctional Center, including eight months on death row, for the 1993 murder of his parents on their Illinois farm.

Gauger, an unassuming man with gentle blue eyes and a long beard, had one last chance: the dedication of a college professor and a handful of students working at the Northwestern University School of Law. For professor Lawrence Marshall (L85) and the students who dedicated themselves to winning freedom for the condemned man, Gauger's spare, 8-foot-by-10-foot prison cell became an extra classroom, filled with lessons in the fallibility of America's criminal justice system - particularly the death penalty.

Gauger, his fingers once again stained with the soil of rural Illinois, was one of 31 exonerated death row inmates, including two women, who journeyed to Chicago last fall for a slow and chilling parade across the stage of Thorne Auditorium at Northwestern's landmark National Conference on Wrongful Convictions and the Death Penalty. But it was those who were absent from the conference - those who have been wrongly executed and those convicted in error who are sitting on death row - who serve as the most urgent reminder that Marshall's work and that of a nationwide network dedicated to freeing the innocent is only beginning.

Leading the push is Northwestern, a pioneer in the effort to right wrongful convictions nationwide. The numbers suggest there are more Gary Gaugers. Since capital punishment was reinstated in the United States in 1976, 74 people on death row have been freed on the basis of DNA samples, the emergence of other new evidence or confessions from the real killers. For every seven executions - there have been about 500 - one prisoner has been found innocent.

"What we are seeing is a great American tragedy," says Bryan Stevenson, executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative of Alabama and the keynote speaker at the fall conference, which drew more than 1,500 people. With all of our resources and law professionals, we almost executed 74 innocent people."

Marshall hopes the highly publicized conference will serve as a catalyst for a new movement. He envisions having at least one professor at each law school in the country dedicated to working on wrongful conviction cases. This person also would develop a curriculum for teaching students about miscarriages of justice that arise from a system that is under intense pressure to solve crimes quickly.

"I would like to see every law school in the country linked together on this issue," says Barry Scheck, professor and co-director of the Innocence Project at Yeshiva University's Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York City." The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers already voted to help find lawyers for the project - pretty good lawyers, too."

Marshall tries to help his students and others understand how the justice system can fail so miserably. "The power we have as lawyers is to effect change," he says. "It's so critical to attack the vice of complacency. Law schools fail when they train the mind but ignore the soul."

At Northwestern, students at the Legal Clinic play a crucial role in cases for select clients unable to pay legal fees. Students work with the clients, do the legal research and conduct the factual investigation. Usually between two and four students are assigned to any one case." Students live and breathe that case during the time they are in the Legal Clinic, just as good lawyers do in representing their clients," Marshall explains.

Big budgets and perfect plans aren't necessary to start an innocence project, according to Jacqueline McMurtrie, director of the Criminal Law Center at the University of Washington School of Law. Rather, what is needed is a core group of volunteers. "You are sitting on a mother lode of volunteers in a law school," she says. "Students are eager for real-life experience."

Students in the Medill School of Journalism have worked in conjunction with Legal Clinic students on several cases. Already, the investigative journalism course taught by professor David Protess plugs students directly into cases where they can unearth wrongful convictions, often in situations where lawyers have given up.

One of the most highly publicized examples is the Ford Heights Four case, in which four unjustly convicted men spent almost two decades on death row for a double murder. Protess' journalism students and Marshall's law students both played a role in the exoneration of the men. Protess documented the case in a recently published book, A Promise of Justice, with co-author Rob Warden, founder and editor of Chicago Lawyer, a newspaper aimed at the area's legal community.

"The biggest eye-opener for students is the extent to which people can get railroaded," Protess says. "One man out of seven (sent to death row) is proven innocent. I believe there are more."

Protess, inundated with mail from prisoners, is grateful for his students: "I wouldn't be able to do what I do without [them]."

His investigative journalism class - which has a limit of 16 students - breaks into groups of four to work primarily on Illinois cases that he believes are worth investigating. In the fall of 1998, Protess offered a special topics course that dealt only with capital cases and was tied directly to November's conference.

With the publication of A Promise of Justice and the publicity surrounding other high-profile cases, classes offered by Protess always fill up early.

The downside is that students come to his investigative journalism classes thinking they can right any wrong, and it doesn't always work that way. "I let them know that the goal here is to find the truth. Some students find someone who was guilty. They have to realize that's OK, too. The ultimate goal is the truth."

Crystal Yednak (J95), a former Protess student, says she learned that "you can't always accept what someone tells you as fact, even if they are the cops or the prosecutors."

Now a reporter at Chicago's Daily Southtown, Yednak attended the conference and says it was a good reminder of what she had learned at the University.

"It's a real-world learning experience," she says. "No one wants to give you information when you're reporting. It's all confrontational, but when you are working to save someone's life, it takes on a new significance."

Lara Flint (J95), who recently graduated from Harvard Law School and is now clerking for a federal judge, was one of 10 journalism students assigned to the case of Girvies Davis, convicted of killing an 89-year-old man in Chicago. No physical evidence linked him to the crime, and it appeared police forced a confession from Davis, who could neither read nor write.

Despite the efforts of Protess, his band of students and others working on overturning Davis' conviction, the inmate was executed in 1995. Protess calls it a classic example of poor man's justice. The case also taught students a valuable lesson. "So many journalism schools spend so much time teaching you how to write," Flint says. "They don't spend the time you need to learn how to report, to go out and get the information you need."

As disappointing as the outcome of the Davis case was to the students who worked on it, the victory was just as sweet this February, when Protess, five of his current students and a private investigator played crucial roles in overturning the conviction of Anthony Porter. The South Side Chicagoan had been fingered in the 1982 murder of two teens, but after the group tracked down a Milwaukee man whom they believed to be the perpetrator, their suspect confessed.

Adding to the drama of the situation, Porter came within 48 hours of being executed in September. At that time, his sentence was stayed based on doubts about whether he was mentally fit to be put to death. Marshall and a group of law students were part of the team that worked with Porter's lawyer in convincing the courts to grant that stay of execution.

Marshall would like to see a project led by Northwestern that would advocate for journalists to have better access to inmates. "Prisons tend to hide their inmates from the press," he says. "The public then has no access to inmates, and it's easier to de-humanize them."

But introducing reforms within the conviction and sentencing process, as well as pushing for a mora- torium on the death penalty, are two more immediate goals. If November's conference is any indicator, both initiatives are gaining momentum in Illinois, across the country and in other parts of the world.

Until last fall, however, the movement had churned on quietly. The event brought to light the enthusiasm and hard work that had won the 74 men and women their freedom.

Along with the exonerated, conference participants included members of the Illinois Moratorium Movement and Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation. Wives and mothers of people on death row came in search of support and solace. An Arizona woman, her 24-year-old nephew on death row in Ohio for a murder she is convinced he didn't commit, spent much of her Social Security check to fly to Chicago for the gathering.

Academics, social workers, attorneys, religious leaders, students and journalists participated in sessions on flawed forensics, jailhouse snitches, forced confessions and scores of other topics. Speakers included Scheck, renowned death penalty attorney Stephen Bright, U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.) and human-rights activists such as former boxer Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, chair of the Association in Defense of the Wrongly Convicted, and Piers Bannister, head researcher on the death penalty for Amnesty International in London.

As each freed death row inmate filed across the stage and sat down to face the audience during the culminating plenary session, he or she placed a sunflower into a vase, symbolizing each life spared. "I don't see how you could look at these flowers that were almost extinguished," Marshall told the tearful crowd, "and tell me the death penalty works."

Many of the former death row inmates had lost more than their freedom. Some had lost families, others livelihoods and dreams. "To be told afterwards that the system works," Stevenson said at the conference, "is cruel."

Randall Dale Adams was 72 hours away from execution when evidence was brought to light that he had been framed for the killing of a Dallas police officer. Kirk Bloodsworth spent nine years on death row in Maryland for the rape and murder of a girl because he resembled composite sketches made from some witness accounts. DNA analysis proved he was not guilty.

In suburban Chicago, based partly on the testimony of jailhouse informants, Rolando Cruz was sentenced to death for the kidnapping, rape and murder of a 10-year-old girl. Cruz spent 12 years in prison (10 on death row), which gave the real murderer the chance to kill another little girl. Cruz was finally set free after the man, a repeat sex offender and murderer, confessed to the crime and DNA confirmed his guilt. "DNA is kind of a magic bullet," Scheck says. "It is telling us something pretty profound about wrongful convictions."

Landmark improvements in DNA testing have resulted in many releases. In the United States, 56 individuals have been freed from prison as a result of DNA samples, although Scheck estimates that 70 percent of the evidence that would provide DNA-based exoneration is accidentally or intentionally lost or destroyed.

Marshall and the Legal Clinic played a significant role in freeing Gauger and Cruz. "If it wasn't for Larry Marshall and the Northwestern students volunteering on this case, I could still be in prison or even dead," Gauger says.

Marshall handled Gauger's appeal after the inmate's twin sister, Ginger, wrote the law professor a letter pleading for help. Gauger himself had written many letters to people proclaiming his innocence but had lost hope. "I felt like I was just sending out the word 'Help!' in a bottle," he says.

Marshall and his team proved Gauger was coerced into a confession by the police after 18 hours of unconstitutional interrogation. Police falsely told Gauger that they had evidence proving his guilt and convinced him he must have blacked out and murdered his parents. "That was the worst part of it all," he says, "thinking that I could have killed my mother and father."

Gauger's death sentence was reduced to life in prison in 1994 because of lack of evidence; two years later, he was freed when the court threw out his statement. One year after that, FBI agents overheard two motorcycle gang members on a wiretap bragging about committing the murder, and a federal grand jury charged the bikers with the crime.

Returning to normality has been a challenge, Gauger says, although the conference provided some catharsis. Not only did Gauger get a chance to connect with others who have experienced the frustration and terror of a wrongful death row sentence, he began to feel emotions again.

"I feel like I was abducted from my home, held against my will and essentially robbed of years of my life and my ability to trust," he says. "There are a lot of people like me."

Northwestern invited all 74 exonerated men and women to attend the conference, but some declined, saying they couldn't face reliving their horror. "The pain was too intense," Marshall says. Others are still having a hard time adjusting, some are incarcerated on other charges and a few have taken their own lives since their release from prison for wrongful conviction.

Marshall would like to see measures put in place to make capital convictions less error-prone and arbitrary - including better training of law enforcement officials and prosecutors.

"A trial is supposed to be the absolute search for truth," he says. "Make it more balanced. Oftentimes, the playing field isn't level. [Defense attorneys] are overworked and often inexperienced. "My dream is that once Americans are exposed to the reality of wrongful convictions, they will move toward a moratorium of the death penalty. I realize abolition is unrealistic in the short term," Marshall says. "It's vital for the whole country to understand that what we're talking about is not some abstract ideal. It is as real as anything can be. Ask the men and women who have been through this hell."

Laurie Aucoin is a reporter for the Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, Ill.) and a freelance writer.

Lawrence Marshall


Lawrence Marshall