Firm's Pro Bono Client Is Released after Serving 19 Years
A team working with attorneys from Northwestern University Law School’s Bluhm Legal Clinic Center on Wrongful Convictions and Stanford Law School Professor Lawrence Marshall represented Juan Rivera in appealing his third conviction of the 1992 rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl, Holly Staker. Jenner & Block, along with the Center on Wrongful Convictions, represented Mr. Rivera in his third trial. At trial, the defense team proved that DNA evidence excluded Mr. Rivera as the rapist and killer. Despite that evidence, a jury found him guilty and the court sentenced him to natural life in prison without parole. On this day in 2011, a unanimous three-judge panel of the Illinois Appellate Court for the Second District reversed Rivera’s conviction, finding insufficient evidence to support his conviction in light of the DNA evidence excluding him as the perpetrator. According to the Court’s 24-page ruling, the conviction was "unjustified and cannot stand." In its opinion, the court said it sympathized with the Staker family but also concluded that “Mr. Rivera, too, has suffered the nightmare of wrongful incarceration.” Mr. Rivera was released after serving 19 years in prison. In a statement at the time, the firm said it donated more than 12,000 hours of legal work on the trial and appeal and called the ruling a "tremendous victory for Mr. Rivera and a great day for justice in the State of Illinois." The Jenner & Block team on Mr. Rivera’s defense included current Partners Thomas Sullivan, Terri Mascherin and Andrew Vail, with assistance from Associate Daniel Fenske and former Associate Sarah Terman. In 2014, authorities announced that DNA evidence from the case matched a potential suspect in a separate murder.
Firm Successfully Argues on Behalf of State's Mandatory Seat-Belt Law
Recognizing “Pro Bono Month,” we note Jerry Solovy’s pro bono work in People v. Kohrig. Appointed as a special assistant attorney general, he argued that the state’s then-15-month-old mandatory seat-belt law should be upheld. On this day in 1986, the Illinois Supreme Court agreed, marking the first time that any state supreme court had so ruled. Ruling that the law does not violate the rights of motorists, under either the state or federal Constitutions, the court said that “the state can enact laws aimed at reducing traffic accidents, since such laws are clearly related to the health, welfare and safety of the public. We also believe that the legislature could rationally conclude that unbelted drivers and passengers endanger the safety of others.”
Firm Secures Victory for Class of Tenants in Pro Bono Housing Matter
Capping a five-year legal battle, the Second Circuit on this day in 2013 affirmed a district court’s approval of a landmark settlement agreement between a class of 22,000 tenants and Pinnacle Group, one of New York City’s largest residential landlords that owned scores of rent-controlled apartments. Low-income tenants had accused the company of orchestrating a harassment campaign against them to force them to move out so that new tenants, not under rent control, would move in. The settlement included an independent and streamlined claims administration process; a $2.5 million legal assistance fund established by Pinnacle to assist the tenants in asserting their rights; an injunction wherein Pinnacle agreed to honor best practices enforced by a court-appointed claims administrator; and an audit of new rents, among other things. Fewer than 1 percent of the class members opted out or objected to the settlement, but all five named class representatives did object and voiced their objections to the district court. The district court conducted a fairness hearing, carefully considered all of the objections, and in June 2012, issued a 54-page opinion granting final approval to the settlement. The five named class representatives and three objecting class members then appealed to the Second Circuit, which called the district court’s decision “thorough” and “well-reasoned.” The Second Circuit also noted that the named class representatives were the “more militant members of the class” and pointed out that “the district court thoroughly and carefully reviewed the settlement and concluded that it was a fair and sensible way to resolve these claims.” The team representing the tenants included current attorneys Richard Levy, Ross Bricker, Marisa Perry and Joshua Rubin with assistance from Michael Brody, Matthew Hellman, Paul Smith and Elizabeth Edmonson.
Firm Helps Secure Pro Bono Client’s Release
On this day in 2013, the Seventh Circuit took the unusual step of ordering pro bono client Nicole Harris released on bond from prison, setting the stage for what ultimately became a successful effort by the firm and Northwestern University Law School’s Bluhm Legal Clinic Center on Wrongful Convictions to exonerate her. "I just feel overwhelmed with joy," she told reporters covering the high-profile case. Ms. Harris had been convicted in 2005 of murdering her 4-year-old son and sentenced to 30 years in prison. The firm and the CWC became involved after trial, appealing the case through state and federal courts and losing at each turn until October 2012, when the Seventh Circuit held that the trial judge had excluded the testimony of Ms. Harris’ surviving son, 5 years old at the time, that he had seen his younger sibling strangle himself with the elastic from a bed sheet when their mother was not in the room. With her conviction reversed, the team asked the Seventh Circuit to order Mrs. Harris released on bond pending further proceedings. “We are grateful to have achieved this result for Ms. Harris,” said Bob Stauffer, who led the firm’s team. “It is very unusual for a federal appellate court to find it necessary to order a state prisoner released pending further proceedings; that the Seventh Circuit did so here suggests that it believes not only that her conviction was unconstitutional, but that it agrees with us that Ms. Harris is actually innocent.” On June 17, Ms. Harris’ freedom was secured when the state announced it would not retry her. Other members of the firm’s team included current attorneys Matt Hellman, Kara Kapp, Andrew Kennedy and Elin Park.
Pro Bono Case Was First in Illinois Granting Post-Convicting Ballistics Testing
On January 26, 2011, a team including Robert Stauffer, Andrew Vail and Kyle Palazzolo achieved a groundbreaking result in a pro bono post-conviction case on behalf of client Patrick Pursley. The Pursley case was the first case in Illinois granting a prisoner ballistics testing under the Post-Conviction Testing Act. Mr. Pursley has adamantly maintained his innocence since his conviction for first-degree murder during the course of an attempted robbery in 1993. The decision was featured in the January 2012 Pro Bono Hot List by The National Law Journal.