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Jeanine Bell and Walter McMillian

Jeanine Bell watches as former death row inmate Walter McMillian places a sunflower in a vase, an act of symbolizing his narrow escape from execution.

Star Turn
Young thespian plays key role in wrongful convictions conference.

Jeanine Bell (S90) is an aspiring actress who found herself in an activist role. It may be her starring performance to date - certainly in the estimation of law professor Lawrence Marshall (L85).

He chose Bell to coordinate the first National Conference on Wrongful Convictions and the Death Penalty, held Nov. 13-15 at the Northwestern University School of Law.

"She worked with astonishing intensity,"Marshall says. "Her diligence and dedication made the conference possible."

Over an 11-month period, Bell tracked down almost all of the 74 people who have been wrongfully sentenced to death since capital punishment was allowed to be reinstated in 1976 and invited them to participate in the conference. Thirty-one accepted.

Hers wasn't an easy job. Bell pored over every telephone directory in the state of Ohio, for instance, to locate just one man. In addition to sifting through phone books, she and a small team of students searched news archives, contacted distant relatives and sent blind letters.

"There were so many of them [former prisoners],"Bell says. "We found out that some were deceased. Some had taken their own lives."

And not everyone was thrilled to hear from her. "A few told me right away that they were trying to forget about that part of their lives and had moved into a new life where nobody knew anything about their past ordeal."

Bell got involved with the wrongful conviction cause almost by accident. While pursuing her acting career, she took a temporary secretarial assignment in Marshall's office. Swept up in his crusade to save the life of death row inmate Rolando Cruz, who was incarcerated in Illinois, Bell put her acting career on hold. Instead, she devoted herself to sorting through the reams of documents that would eventually contribute to proving Cruz's innocence.

A year after Bell left Marshall's office, he asked her to coordinate the conference. Shortly after the event, Bell was cast in a play. For her long-term future, she is figuring out a means of melding theater and social activism.

"What I realized is I need to find a way to continue to do both,"she says. "These are two totally different areas of my life I am passionate about." - L.A.