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Karen Daniel, nationally known wrongful convictions attorney, dies at 62

Daniel was clinical professor of law, former director of Center on Wrongful Convictions

Karen Daniel
Karen Daniel and her students freed numerous wrongfully convicted clients.

Karen L. Daniel, a nationally known wrongful convictions attorney who led Northwestern Pritzker School of Law’s Center on Wrongful Convictions (CWC), died in December in Oak Park, Illinois. She was 62.

A clinical professor of law emerita, Daniel retired in 2018, having served as co-director or director of the CWC since 2014. She supervised second- and third-year law students who represented convicted persons with claims of innocence in state and federal court proceedings and before the governor’s clemency board. She spoke frequently about her work and the cause of wrongful convictions. 

After she joined the CWC in 2000, Daniel and her students freed numerous wrongfully convicted clients, achieving exonerations in both DNA and non-DNA cases. In 2012, Daniel co-founded the Women’s Project of the Center on Wrongful Convictions.  

“Karen was a fierce, tenacious and brilliant lawyer-advocate whose life’s work was fighting for justice,” said Kimberly Yuracko, dean of Northwestern Pritzker Law. “She was universally beloved by her students, clients and colleagues, and her passing is felt near and far. It isa huge loss for the Law School and the innocence movement, and she will be dearly missed.” 

Daniel's clients at the CWC included Michael Evans, who served 27 years in prison for a murder he did not commit prior to his exoneration through DNA testing; Dana Holland, who was freed after a decade of incarceration for two wrongful convictions; Randy Steidl, who became the 18th and most recent former Illinois death row inmate to be exonerated since the Illinois death penalty was reinstated in 1977; Marlon Pendleton, who was exonerated by DNA testing in 2006; Robert Wilson, whose conviction for a 1997 attempted murder was vacated nearly 10 years later after the victim admitted she was mistaken in her identification of him; Julie Rea Harper, who was acquitted of the murder of her son after a retrial in 2006; and Alan Beaman, whose 1995 murder conviction was reversed by the Illinois Supreme Court in 2008 based on prosecutorial misconduct. 

Judy Royal, a former staff attorney at the CWC who co-founded its Women’s Project with Daniel, wrote in a post on Injustice Watch: “Karen transformed the lives of not only her clients but also her students and colleagues at the Center on Wrongful Convictions. A number of her former students — notably Greg Swygert and Andrea Lewis Hartung — have focused their careers on wrongful conviction or other public interest endeavors. One of her high-profile exonerees, Kristine Bunch, joined another exonerated Center client, Juan Rivera, to start an organization to help the exonerated adjust to life outside of prison.” 

At the CWC’s 20th anniversary celebration in November, Daniel received the Thomas P. Sullivan Justice Award. The Board of the Innocence Network announced recently that it would be awarding this year’s Champion of Justice Award to Daniel at its annual conference in Chicago on March 27, 2020. Daniel was a member of the Innocence Network Board from 2013 until shortly before her death.

“Karen’s legacy is indelible in the minds of all who knew and loved her — and in the annals of criminal justice reform,” Royal said.

Daniel received her bachelor’s degree from University of California at Davis and a law degree from Harvard Law School.

She is survived by husband Alan Goldberg, son Scott Goldberg Daniel, stepdaughters Julia (Daniel) Alamillo, Laura and Diana Goldberg; granddaughter Sophia; mother Mary K. Daniel and sister Kelly (David) Selva. 

A fall symposium to be held at the Law School and open to the Northwestern community will honor Daniel’s life and impact. Memorial contributions may be made to a member organization in the Innocence Network

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