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Leigh Bienen: a career from fiction writing to capital punishment

Podcast with the author, researcher and reformer who opens up about her winding, impactful career
Leigh Bienen
Northwestern Pritzker School of Law Senior Lecturer Leigh Bienen.


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In this Northwestern Now podcast, we explore the life and work of
Leigh Bienen, senior lecturer at the Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law. We sat down with Leigh in the Bluhm Legal Clinic in an office overlooking Lake Michigan. She shared her own wonder about an unexpected career that took her from writing fiction to working, both in and outside academia, to expose some stark truths about our criminal justice system.

Leigh: Like many people, my career had a lot of chance to it; there was a lot of serendipity.

A public defender in New Jersey for almost two decades, Leigh now is a leading researcher on capital punishment and the ways it is applied in the United States. She laid that out in her 2010 book, “Murder and Its Consequences: Essays on Capital Punishment in America.”

Leigh: If someone had told me, ‘You’re going to become an expert in capital punishment and you’re going to work in New Jersey and Illinois,’ I would have said, ‘You know, that’s not going to happen.’

Related to her advocacy for capital punishment reform, Leigh recently created her third website, Illinois State Judges Project — designed to bring greater accountability to the legal system via detailed data on all Illinois judges in 2015.

She also is director of the Chicago Homicide Project, in which historical, hand-written case summaries documenting homicides in Chicago from 1870 to 1930 were analyzed and published on a website. And she is the author of "Crimes of the Century: From Leopold & Loeb to O.J. Simpson."

Let’s now go way back to the beginning of Leigh’s unlikely career path in law.

She studied at the University of Iowa Writers Workshop before beginning her career as an award-winning fiction writer and a journalist. Later, she enrolled in law school at Rutgers University in Newark, at the time an approximately two-hour train ride from her home.

Leigh: Well, you know I was driven to law school because I had a job I hated. We were living in Princeton, and it was the first place we’d lived where I couldn’t find work that I found meaningful.

The “we” she refers to included three young daughters and her husband Henry Bienen, who later left his position at Princeton University to become president of Northwestern. 

Leigh was 10 years removed from undergraduate work and considered several options, including medical school, a Ph.D. in English and continuing previous graduate work in economics. Med school was time-consuming and expensive, and the other two simply no longer appealed to Bienen as a career, so law school became the obvious choice.

It was a family trip to Nigeria after her first year of law school that led to her becoming a researcher on homicide cases.

Leigh: I ended up doing this quite elaborate research project on homicide which resulted in two academic papers, before I graduated, in law journals. It got me a summer grant the next summer. It got me my first job after law school. It got me my second job after law school. It got me a teaching position at the University of California Berkley. It got me my job at the public advocate/public defender, where I stayed for 18 years, in New Jersey.

If we hadn’t gone to Nigeria, and I hadn’t been like, ‘I’ve got to have a research paper here, and this is what I’m going to write on,’ and how I discovered that, I’d never have become an expert on capital punishment.

Following a five-year stint teaching at Princeton, Leigh began teaching at Northwestern in January 1995.

Leigh: When we came to Illinois, I said to my husband, ‘If there’s one thing I know, I know I won’t be working on capital punishment because nothing’s happening in Illinois with regard to capital punishment.’

Oh, the irony.

Leigh: So what was the hottest place in the whole world for capital punishment but our clinic, our Center on Wrongful Convictions, and everything here in Chicago. No one was more astonished than I was. 

In 2000, thanks in large part to the legal representation, research and policy work of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern, then-Illinois Gov. George Ryan imposed a statewide moratorium on executions.

Leigh: Then, two years, three years pass, and it was very important that the moratorium on executions was in effect during that period because other research could be done, people could look at other things. He appointed the commission to study the reform of the death penalty – that was very important – the big blue ribbon commission with the most unimpeachable people serving on it.

Leigh’s decades of research have convinced her that the death penalty is not only immoral, but also completely illogical. The startling findings of the Illinois commission further confirmed that belief.  

Leigh: One of the interesting things about abolition is — it was true in Britain in the 50’s, it’s been true in every state in which it has been abolished — if you ask people the basic capital punishment question, ‘Are you for or against the death penalty for murder?’ you will get more than half the people saying they are for it.

However, when people are knowledgeable about how it’s applied, or who gets it or the fact that if you have money and can have an attorney who knows what they’re doing in the system, you won’t be sentenced to death — if you’re case is processed in a certain way, you won’t be sentenced to death.

When people know these things and the know the disparate impact on the poor, on minorities, their point of view changes.

Leigh’s research on the disparities in the way the death penalty is applied in the United States was part of her motivation for creating the Illinois State Judges Project.

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So what was the hottest place in the whole world for capital punishment but our clinic, our Center on Wrongful Convictions, and everything here in Chicago. No one was more astonished than I was. ”

Leigh Bienen

She noted that, for example, judges running in primaries made completely inappropriate political use of capital punishment, such as bragging about the number of people they had sentenced to death.

Leigh: My view is, this is an exercise in transparency. It’s an exercise in making government more easily, and the details of government more easily accessible to ordinary people.

Another focus of Leigh’s reform research is Florence Kelley, a social activist who, at the turn of the 20th century, worked tirelessly to improve working conditions and eradicate child labor in Chicago. In 2008, Leigh created a website on Kelley, and later, she wrote a book called “Florence Kelley and the Children: Factory Inspector in 1890s Chicago.”

Leigh: She was just such an amazing figure and I discovered so many biographical documents about her, and that she had written, that I just felt these had to be shared with the wider community because people just didn’t know much about her. Along the way, this is what converted me to working on the web.

The opportunity to take things like the 1890s Chicago Public Health report, the factory inspection reports from the 1890s, the 1910 city reports, the Illinois crime survey – to put these documents and pieces of research up on the web was such an amazing opportunity.

I consider those websites to be educational, to be for the use of teachers. I always had, in the back of my mind, a vision of some high school teacher snowed in in North Dakota who discovers the Florence Kelley website and says, ‘Well, I know what we’re going to do in history tomorrow.’

Like her career in law, her focus on legal reform was unexpected. Bienen said she figured she would study copyright law, given her writing experience. She took one course and hated it.

Leigh: I have to tell you that I spent years writing about the law, and I’m still writing about the law. When I got to law school, I thought, ‘Well, I’ll go to law school and get a nice, quiet job and then I’ll go back to writing fiction while my daily bread is paid for by something else.’ But what should happen and I get in the middle of this whole criminal thing.

In fact, she readily admits that …

Leigh: I didn’t even know there was something called the Bar Exam. I’d been in law school for about two months and someone made a reference to the Bar Exam, and I said, ‘What? What’s that? What’s that? You have to go all the way through law school and you take all these courses, and there’s something else you have to do?’

That leads to one of Leigh’s overarching messages to college students: Don’t worry about having a grand plan for your career – you never know where life will take you.

Thanks for listening to this Northwestern Now podcast. Like what you heard? Check out much more content at Northwestern Now. Until next time, I’m Joe Popely.