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Advocates for the Wrongfully Convicted Honor Rob Warden

Lawyers, scholars, advocates, exonerees cite momentum in innocence movement

CHICAGO --- At first glance the symposium honoring Rob Warden, the co-founder of the Center on Wrongful Convictions (CWC) at Northwestern University School of Law, seemed like déjà vu.

Many of the featured speakers and audience members were the same ones who were central to the 1998 Conference on Wrongful Convictions and the Death Penalty at Northwestern Law.

Almost 16 years ago, that historic conference brought media from throughout the world to the law school to shine an unprecedented light on wrongful convictions, setting the stage for the founding of the center one year later.

During the symposium this May, leading lawyers, scholars, advocates and exonerees once again gathered in the law school’s Thorne Auditorium to lay out the terrible costs of wrongful convictions and the death penalty, both with hard facts and heartbreaking tales of individuals devastated by an overburdened criminal justice system that too often gets it wrong. 

But this time the symposium discussions also focused on the considerable progress that has been made in rectifying and preventing wrongful convictions following the momentum of the 1998 conference.

Thanks to the relentless efforts of many in the auditorium that day in 1998 and beyond, public perceptions, policies, investigations, interrogations, litigation and legislation related to wrongful convictions have shifted markedly for the better, said Lawrence Marshall, co-founder, with Warden, of the Center on Wrongful Convictions and now a professor at Stanford Law School.

Since the 1998 conference, exonerations, death penalty moratoriums and legislation reforms related to wrongful convictions have increased dramatically.

Power of narrative

Warden, who will retire in August, was pivotal to the sea change in the national discourse about wrongful convictions and the death penalty, and his pathbreaking investigative work was cited by one speaker after another.  

In his introductory remarks Daniel Rodriguez, dean of Northwestern’s School of Law, paid tribute to Warden “and his dedicated, countless contributions to our center, to our law school and to educating the public about the prevalence and causes of wrongful convictions.”

Speaking once again at the law school where he left such an indelible mark, Center on Wrongful Convictions co-founder Marshall set the tone for the symposium with his passionate opening remarks.

“Rob’s brilliance was understanding as a journalist that the way you get into people’s consciousness, the way you effect change, is through the compelling story -- that the compelling story is worth a thousand statistical studies,” he said.

A former journalist who won awards for his pioneering investigative pieces on wrongful convictions, Warden continued to use narrative as a Center on Wrongful Convictions leader to counter a once deeply ingrained mindset against evidence, no matter how compelling, that innocent people really do linger in prison and, most tragically, on death row for crimes they didn’t commit, Marshall noted.

“Whether it’s in the area of false confessions, in the area of eyewitness identification, the area of jailhouse informants, you name it, Rob’s use of narrative has been extraordinarily effective,” Marshall said, in telling the stories of innocent people victimized by well-known flaws in the criminal justice system.

By the time of the 1998 conference, both Warden and Marshall had worked on the cases of exonerees who would become household names. Warden’s journalism portfolio included investigative pieces on Gary Dotson, the Ford Heights Four and Rolando Cruz. A few years before the conference, Marshall’s successful defense of Cruz -- after three trials and a judge’s directed verdict of prosecutorial misconduct -- finally altered the media’s perspective on the murder of a young girl that had dominated headlines for many years.

Media focuses on wrongful convictions

But it was an Associated Press photo from the 1998 conference that signaled the shift of the media’s, and, ultimately, public perception about wrongful convictions and the death penalty. As the digital age was just beginning to take off, the AP photographer was the envy of fellow photojournalists as, sitting in the law school, he transmitted the widely publicized photo from his laptop across the world.   

Picked up by The New York Times, among many other news outlets, the photo captured the former death row inmates, gathered together for the first time ever, on the stage of Thorne Auditorium, immediately after each had introduced himself at the podium saying, “Had the state of Illinois gotten its way, I’d be dead today.”

Of the first gathering of 28 death row survivors, the article in The New York Times that ran Nov. 16, 1998, said, “It was a chilling flesh-and-blood reminder of the greatest fear of opponents and supporters of the death penalty -- the execution of the innocent.”

In the years following the 1998 conference, the Chicago Tribune devoted considerable resources to investigative pieces related to wrongful convictions, including a six-part series titled “Cops and Confessions” and a three-part special report titled “The Legacy of Wrongful Convictions.”

Zorn Q & A with Warden

Interviewing Warden on stage, Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn, who has written a number of columns on exonerees and wrongful convictions, took Warden down memory lane, from his days as a cub reporter in Kalamazoo, Mich., to his career at the Chicago Daily News, one of the nation’s premier organizations at the time.

Warden held a number of positions at the Daily News, where he covered business, science and politics, worked as a foreign correspondent for a few years and held a number of editor positions. He began to win prizes for his work on Chicago police officers infiltrating community organizations to spy on them. He also challenged other government officials in his stories, a relatively rare occurrence in journalism at the time.

Finally after the Daily News folded in March 1978, Warden started working for a little law publication that reported on legal comings and goings. That publication ultimately became The Chicago Lawyer, which Warden co-founded and for which he wrote his first death penalty story.

A young white couple had been abducted from an all white suburb, brutally murdered and abandoned at a townhouse.

“The cops grabbed the most convenient guys, who happened to be Dennis Williams, Willie Raines, Kenneth Adams and Verneal Jimerson [the Ford Heights Four], and railroaded them on to death row,” Warden said.

At the Daily News, Warden said he had began to realize that “the justice system has a propensity for doing this.”  He remembered thinking, he told Zorn, “‘How can we trust a system that can get away with taking innocent people’s lives?’ It was stunning.”

The recipient of more than 50 journalism awards, Warden went on to work on a number of stories related to wrongful convictions at the Chicago Lawyer before selling the publication in 1989.

“What would he tell a young journalist starting out today?” Zorn asked.

“You have got to be willing to follow your instincts, and don’t let anybody persuade you to do anything you don’t think is right, even though that person may be in a position of authority,” Warden concluded. 

Exonerees embrace Warden on stage

In a truly déjà vu moment, the group of 30-plus exonerees who gathered on the stage of Thorne Auditorium this May included former death row inmates who were featured in that AP photo in 1998, including Gary Gauger and Kenny Adams of the Ford Heights Four.

Standing on the stage seeming a bit stunned, the man who spent much of his career pushing stories of wrongful convictions into primetime news was approached by each of the exonerees with a heartfelt handshake or embrace. The backdrop on stage with Warden’s picture read, “We love you, Rob.”

“Most of all, I think of Rob as a great journalist, an iconic figure in the tradition of the muckraking, crusading investigative reporting from the streets to the courts to the statehouses to the White House,” said Barry Scheck.

Scheck, a professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law of Yeshiva University and co-director of its Innocence Project, is internationally known for landmark litigation that has set standards for forensic applications of DNA technology.  

That journalistic tradition of rising above institutional pressures and cultural expectations to tell the truth, Scheck added, goes back to the writing of Theodore Dreiser and Upton Sinclair.

“Rob has literally written an encyclopedia on wrongful convictions which has morphed into a registry,” he said. 

A joint project of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern’s School of Law and the University of Michigan, the National Registry of Exonerations provides detailed information about every known exoneration in the United States since 1989 -- cases in which a person was wrongly convicted of a crime and later cleared of all the charges based on new evidence of innocence.

Center on Wrongful Convictions a model for innocence projects

Scheck pointed to the Center on Wrongful Convictions as a model for innocence projects throughout the country.

“What a great institution, starting with Larry [Marshall] and Rob [Warden] and Karen [Daniel] and Jane [Raley] and, of course, the great Steve Drizin and Josh [Tepfer] and all of the wonderful people here,” he said.

“Let’s be honest, we started an innocence project,” Scheck added. “You guys started a Center on Wrongful Convictions, because you have a broader vision.” While the Innocence Project only handles DNA cases, he said, “you’re doing the harder non-DNA cases, and you’ve been doing that from the beginning.”

The center has contributed to the exoneration of dozens of innocent men and women, produced several groundbreaking articles on the causes of wrongful conviction and blazed a trail of revolutionary reforms.

Most notably, the center played a major role in influencing the moratorium on Illinois executions declared by former Gov. George Ryan in January 2000 and his decision to commute all Illinois death sentences in January 2003.

The center also influenced the creation of a comprehensive package of criminal justice reforms approved by the Illinois General Assembly in November 2003. Illinois was the first state to pass a law mandating police to record all custodial interrogations of suspects in murder cases. Statements are now inadmissible unless the entire interrogation has been recorded. Twelve other states have since followed the Illinois lead.

Culture, sensibilities, attitudes different today

Marshall talked about how sensibilities and attitudes about exonerations have been profoundly affected since the 1998 conference. “I believe there is a different culture out there,” he said. “I believe the prosecutors and juries and judges are more open to hearing claims now than they were 20 years ago.”

The people who get arrested or charged, he said, are more likely to get a prosecutor who has been exposed to knowledge that makes him pause or an interrogator “who realizes that ‘maybe 10 years ago, I would have used that trick, but today, I’m not going to.’”

Marshall also addressed what’s happening “beneath the surface” resulting in people not being charged in the first place. “The people in positions of power recognize the problems with the case and the problems with the evidence, and they step back.”

Many have been exposed to a growing body of research, including CWC studies, that identifies systemic problems with the criminal justice system, including erroneous eyewitness testimony, false and coerced confessions, official misconduct, inadequate legal defense, false forensic evidence, perjury and incentivized testimony (snitches).

Pointing to various charts throughout his presentation, Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, suggested that the 1998 conference especially made a difference in attitudes about the death penalty.   

In 1999 there were 98 executions, but by 2000 they dropped by more than 50 percent, he said. Exonerations also peaked in the 2000s. He also noted that “just seven years ago in 2007 there were 12 states that abolished the death penalty. There are now 18 states -– a 50 percent increase.”

Law schools great places for innocence projects

Situating innocence projects in law schools whose graduates go on to work in every area of the criminal justice system also has had a powerful effect on reform efforts, Marshall noted.  Every law student who graduates from Northwestern, he said, including those who go on to be prosecutors and judges, will understand that the truth in criminal cases is affected by “the risk of error, the risk of false confessions, the risk of bad science, the risk of bad eyewitness testimony.”

That certainly was the case for Scott Drury, a Northwestern Law graduate who was a federal prosecutor and now is an Illinois state representative.

After getting elected, Drury said he immediately asked Warden what he should do to keep innocent people from going to prison. True to Warden’s advice from that phone call, Drury successfully fought for the legislation that expanded videotaped interrogations.

“I have jokingly said to Rob ‘my goal is to put the center out of business,’” Drury told the audience. “’If we can pass all these laws and stop wrongful convictions, you won’t have any more clients. That would be a good day for Illinois. It would be a good day for the country.’”

That sentiment reflects the type of clinical education offered at the School of Law that makes Dean Rodriguez proud. He cited the work of the entire Bluhm Legal Clinic, in which the Center of Wrongful Convictions is housed, and its director Thomas Geraghty.

“We are extraordinarily proud of the work of the Bluhm Legal Clinic,” Rodriguez said. “It is for my money the finest clinical law program in the country.”

The Center on Wrongful Convictions would not exist without Warden, he went on to say. “The difficult work and glorious results of the dozens of exonerations for which the CWC, the Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth and the center’s many partners are responsible for would not have happened but for Rob’s persistent work.”

CWC going forward

After Warden's retirement in August, the Center on Wrongful Convictions will be co-directed by clinical professors and CWC co-legal directors Karen Daniel and Jane Raley. Other than Warden, Daniel and Raley are the CWC's longest-serving staff members. They joined the clinic law faculty in 2000, one year after the CWC's establishment.

Going forward, Daniel and Raley plan to augment the CWC's already robust amicus brief program in cooperation with Chicago area law firms; find common ground with the law enforcement community, through such efforts as the upcoming Conviction Integrity Conference in October; and continue innovative programs -- such as the Women's Project -- which focus on underserved client populations.

"The Center on Wrongful Convictions will continue its splendid work under Karen’s and Jane's leadership,” said Geraghty, Bluhm legal director and associate dean of clinical education at the School of Law.

“Their work has been key to the center's many successes over the years in providing excellent representation to clients in need as well as unique educational opportunities for our law students,” he said. “And Karen and Jane have played vital roles in the center’s efforts to reform our criminal justice system to reduce wrongful convictions.”

Recognizing what the symposium was all about, Rodriguez also gave special thanks to all the exonerees in the audience. “These men and women have endured wrongful convictions and the unspeakable burdens of incarceration and other collateral consequences,” he said. “Their inspiration and spirit is truly the oxygen in the room, as we look to the future of the innocence movement.”
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