Death penalty history made at Northwestern
By Pat Vaughan Tremmel
Following rampant speculation, he finally announced that he was commuting the sentences of more than 150 of Illinois’ death row prisoners to life in prison without parole.
The decision, quickly transmitted by major media around the world, was one the law school’s Center on Wrongful Convictions played a prominent role in bringing about.
The governor’s introduction by Professor Lawrence Marshall, the center’s legal director and an internationally prominent leader in death penalty representation and policy, reflects the center’s gratitude.
“Despite all of the passion, energy and brilliance of those who have gathered here today, the truths about the fissures in our criminal justice system would still be buried were it not for the unparalleled willingness of Gov. George Ryan to open his mind and heart to challenge orthodoxies that few in power have been willing to question,” Marshall said.
Ryan in turn paid tribute to the network of lawyers, activists, journalists, academics and students who influenced his decision.
“It is fitting that we are gathered here today at Northwestern University with the students, teachers, lawyers and investigators who first shed light on the sorrowful conditions of Illinois’ death penalty system,” Ryan said. “Professors Larry Marshall, Dave Protess and their students, along with investigator Paul Ciolino, have gone above the call.”
Ryan recalled the famous 1999 photo of Anthony Porter, released from prison only days before his scheduled execution, and David Protess, the Medill professor who, with his investigative journalism students, is internationally recognized for breaking flawed death row cases wide open.
“A free man, [Porter] ran into the arms of Northwestern University’s Dave Protess, who poured his heart and soul into proving Porter’s innocence, with his journalism students,” Ryan said.
Legal Director Marshall, Executive Director Rob Warden, an award-winning legal affairs journalist who was a pioneer in exposing more than a score of wrongful convictions, and others at the Center on Wrongful Convictions had been working tirelessly in recent months to influence the governor’s decision to commute all of Illinois’ death sentences to life in prison without parole.
As part of it its public campaign, last month the center organized three events that also garnered extensive media attention.
The largest gathering ever of exonerated death row prisoners (36) and prominent advocates for reform of the capital punishment system took center stage Dec. 15 at the law school. The next day 30 of the previously exonerated participated in a “Dead Men Walking” relay walk across Illinois; and that evening a performance of “The Exonerated,” a highly acclaimed play that features celebrities, premiered in Chicago in a performance staged for the governor.
“We kept providing information about flaws in the capital punishment system to the governor and his staff as well as to the public, believing that as long as the governor looked at the question openly and honestly he would realize the only reasonable resolution was to commute all the sentences,” Marshall said.
The governor’s bold move to “no longer tinker with the machinery of death” is the highlight of a series of successes for Marshall and the center that grew out of his pioneering work on legislation, policies and advocacy related to wrongful convictions and his representation of high-profile clients, including Rolando Cruz, the Ford Heights Ford and Gary Gauger.
Principals of the Center on Wrongful Convictions, Protess, and Northwestern students have been involved with 11 of the 17 people who have been exonerated from Illinois’ death row since the death penalty was reinstituted in 1977.
Northwestern faculty and students played a key role in the cases of two of the four men whose exonerations from death row were announced the day before the governor made his speech at Northwestern.
One of the exonerated men, Leroy Orange, provided Marshall “with a magnificent feeling that never grows old, walking out of prison with a client who has been fighting against all odds, in this case for 18 years.” Marshall worked with Orange’s attorneys; Thomas Geraghty, director of the law school’s Bluhm Legal Clinic and a specialist on police brutality; and clinic attorney Cathryn Crawford.
“Tom Geraghty embodies the concept of promoting justice while he walks humbly,” said Marshall.
Protess and his students also experienced that “magnificent feeling” with the Jan. 10 pardon of Aaron Patterson, whose case Protess began investigating in 1998; and the Center on Wrongful Convictions had filed an amicus curiae brief on Patterson’s behalf.
The center’s work to rectify serious miscarriages of justice also includes non-death penalty cases, such as the case of Tabitha Pollock, whose six and one-half years of wrongful incarceration ended Dec. 12. The New York Times story about Pollock illustrates the uphill battle the center fights every day, said Marshall.
“Ms. Pollock will go free only because a student plucked her letter from the 17,000 that the center receives every year, and the clinic persuaded the Supreme Court to hear an appeal filed after the deadline passed,” said New York Times reporter Adam Liptak.
Pollock was represented on appeal by Center on Wrongful Convictions attorneys Jane Raley and Marshall, with the help of students.
“Most people don’t get help,” Marshall said. “We simply do not have the resources. But we try to make certain that our cases have impact that goes beyond the particular defendant. If a case involves a false confession, we try mightily to drive home lessons to sensitize the system to that problem. The same is true with eyewitness identification errors, jailhouse snitches, incompetent attorneys and myriad other problems.”
The Center on Wrongful Convictions will continue one of its main missions — to educate. It will continue to develop proposals for a better legal system; to push for legislation that includes, among other issues, the 85 reform measures that came out of Gov. Ryan’s blue-ribbon commission on the death penalty; to train students; and to educate the public.
In the immediate future, the center also will help meet legal challenges to the death sentence commutations that were announced within days of Gov. Ryan’s historic speech at the law school.