Firm Partners with BMO Harris, United Way of Metro Chicago, and NIJC to Offer DACA Clinic
Our Pro Bono Commitment
In a trailblazing partnership, the firm collaborated with client BMO Harris, United Way of Metro Chicago, and the NIJC to offer first-time DACA application assistance through the Consulate General of Mexico in Chicago. Partner Andrew W. Vail, who serves as general counsel of the UWMC, organized the clinic. In addition to Mr. Vail, the firm team included Partners Angela M. Allen, Nicole A. Allen, Benjamin J. Bradford, Shoba Pillay, Megan B. Poetzel, Michael W. Ross, Erin R. Schrantz and Associate Amit B. Patel. The firm lawyers are partnering with in-house lawyers at BMO to create teams for each client.
Firm’s Amicus Brief Opposes Efforts to Block Construction of the Obama Presidential Center
On July 15, the firm submitted an amicus brief, pro bono, on behalf of 16 iconic Chicagoland museums and cultural institutions that oppose efforts to block construction of the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park.
The plaintiffs inProtect Our Parks, Inc., et. al. v. Pete Buttigieg, Secretary of the US Department of Transportation, et. al., No. 21-cv-2006 (N.D. Ill.)seek a preliminary injunction to stop the center. The brief argues that the court should deny that request.
“The Chicagoland Museums believe the Obama Presidential Center will be a cultural and economic treasure for Chicago that will benefit the public by bringing new amenities and positive development to the surrounding community, boosting the local economy, and serving as a magnet for visitors to the City and the region. It will serve as an enduring and powerful symbol of the promise of America and the American Dream. In other words, the public interest strongly favors allowing construction to move forward without any further delays,” the brief reads.
The brief highlights the area’s long and rich history of featuring these world-class institutions: “Museums provide major educational and economic benefits and advance the public’s interest in knowledge and understanding. The Chicagoland Museums offer benefits to the public, the City, and the Chicago Park District—and offer benefits to each other when they are clustered together. Each museum is truly a treasure and Chicagoland, its residents, and visitors are fortunate to have them.”
The brief is signed by Co-Managing Partner Randy Mehrberg, joined by Partners Daniel J. Weiss and Gabriel K. Gillett and Associate Elena M. Olivieri.
The Chicagoland museums and cultural institutions that joined the brief include the following: Adler Planetarium, The Art Institute of Chicago, Bronzeville Children’s Museum, Chicago Academy of Sciences/Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, Chicago Architecture Center, Chicago History Museum, DuSable Museum of African American History, Field Museum of Natural History, Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center, Lincoln Park Zoo, Millennium Park Foundation, Museum of Contemporary Art, Museum of Science and Industry, National Museum of Mexican Art, The National Museum of Puerto Rican Arts & Culture, and Shedd Aquarium.
This is the third brief the firm submitted in support of the Obama Presidential Center. In 2018, the firm submitted a brief in the district court on behalf of 11 museums in Protect Our Parks, Inc. v. Chicago Park District, and submitted a brief in the Seventh Circuit when the plaintiffs appealed their loss. WTTW reported on the latest brief.
Jenner & Block Announces Winners of Annual Pro Bono Awards
Jenner & Block today gave the annual Albert E. Jenner Pro Bono Award to Partner David J. Bradford for a lifetime of pro bono service and for his leadership in a voting rights case in the 2020 presidential election. The firm also gave the Albert E. Jenner Pro Bono Award to a Jenner & Block team that challenged three Wisconsin laws imposing severe restrictions on abortion access at a trial last year. The firm gave the annual Jenner & Block Award for Excellence in Pro Bono or Public Service to Paralegal Mary Frances Patston for her long service to the firm’s pro bono work.
Albert E. Jenner Pro Bono Award – David J. Bradford
David J. Bradford was honored for his pro bono representation of United Healthcare Workers East in a lawsuit against Florida Postmaster General Louis DeJoy over changes to USPS policies last year. The changes would have delayed ballots and disenfranchise Floridians who were voting by mail in larger numbers than usual because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Ultimately, Mr. Bradford and his team of Jenner & Block lawyers won a court order requiring postal facilities in the 10 largest counties in Florida to certify that they had processed all ballots by 8 am on Monday, November 2, the day before the election. The team that worked with Mr. Bradford on the USPS case included Partners Jessica Ring Amunson, Daniel J. Weiss, Ashley M. Schumacher, Associates Christopher M. Sheehan, Nayiri Keosseian Pilikyan, Senior Paralegal W. Michael Hughes, and Legal Assistant Fran M. Sattelmayer
Mr. Bradford has been at Jenner & Block since 1978, except for his time as a founding attorney of the MacArthur Justice Center. In addition to the Florida voting rights case, he was honored for a lifetime of service to some of the most important and challenging pro bono cases. Among them, he represented Mr. Rashid Awadh Rashid Al-Uwaidah, a detainee at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
He has successfully represented several death row prisoners and also worked with national organizations to try to abolish the death penalty. He was among a group of lawyers who helped convince Governor Pat Quinn to end the death penalty in Illinois in 2011.
Albert E. Jenner Pro Bono Award – reproductive rights trial team
A team of Jenner & Block lawyers was honored for its work challenging the constitutionality of three laws passed by the state of Wisconsin that severely restrict women’s rights to safe and legal abortion care. The team was led by Partners Ali M. Arain and Lori B. Day and included Partners Alison I. Stein and Susan J. Kohlmann, Associates Kara V. Brandeisky, Emily S. Mannheimer, Jessica A. Martinez, and Danielle Muniz, and Paralegals Esmeralda Bako and Albert Peterson.
The lawyers filed a complaint against the Attorney General of Wisconsin and other state officials challenging Wisconsin laws restricting who can provide abortion care in a state with a critical shortage of physicians. The plaintiffs included three advanced nurse practitioners directly impacted by the law and the Medical Director of Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin, as well as Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin itself.
In December 2020, the team conducted a week-long, virtual trial before Judge William M. Conley in the Western District of Wisconsin. The team presented testimony from plaintiffs, the COO of Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin, and multiple expert witnesses in addition to opening statements and closing arguments. The judge’s decision in Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin v. Kaul is pending.
Jenner & Block Award for Excellence - Mary Frances Patston
Paralegal Mary Frances Patston was honored with the Jenner & Block Award for Excellence in Pro Bono or Public Service. This award recognizes staff members who demonstrated an exceptional commitment to providing pro bono service. Ms. Patston initially joined Jenner & Block in 1983, left in 1999, and returned in 2004. She has supported lawyers in a variety of pro bono projects with grace and kindness. She has worked on more than 100 pro bono matters over the years. She has developed knowledge of and facility with the appellate practice, especially with filings before the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. From appointment to preparing the record, to cite-checking and finalizing briefs, to preparing for oral argument, Ms. Patston makes sure that everything is done right so that our clients have the best chance of prevailing.
Past recipients of the Albert E. Jenner Award can be found here.
Jenner & Block’s pro bono program was founded in 1954. In addition to high-profile cases at every level of the judicial system, our lawyers provide pro bono representation in a wide range of legal areas. This includes pursuing asylum for those fleeing persecution; fighting injustice in our criminal justice system, governments and society; advising grass roots and non-profit organizations; advocating for veterans; protecting constitutional rights; assisting victims of domestic violence and sex trafficking; and fighting for environmental protection, among so many other issues that impact people and our communities.
In January, the firm launched its pledge to provide $250 million in free legal services to people in need over the next five years.
Jenner & Block has been recognized by The American Lawyer as the top pro bono firm in the United States for the last four years, and 10 of the past 13 years. We partner with dedicated legal aid organizations, law school clinics, in-house legal departments, and others committed to providing access to justice and serving the public good. As advocates for equity, we embrace our responsibility to serve those in need, better our communities, and protect our future.
Firm Once Again Named to PILI’s Pro Bono Recognition Roster
On June 16, Public Interest Law Initiative will recognize Jenner & Block on its 2021 Pro Bono Recognition Roster. PILI’s Roster celebrates law firms and corporations that have made significant commitments and contributions to pro bono throughout Illinois. Jenner & Block has been named to the Roster since its inception in 2010.
To be eligible for the Roster, law firms must meet at least two of the following criteria:
An average of 35 pro bono hours per legal professional in Illinois per year.
A 5% increase in Illinois office(s) pro bono hours from the previous year.
60% or more of the firm’s Illinois lawyers participate in pro bono work.
Participation in the Chicago Bar Foundation’s Law Firm Leadership Circle or signing one of PILI’s Judicial Circuit Pro Bono Committee Pro Bono Pledges.
Adoption of innovative steps to involve more Illinois office(s) legal department staff in pro bono work or to expand the law firm’s pro bono program.
The June 16 Virtual Annual Pro Bono Reception starts at 12 pm Central and will feature a pro bono tour of Illinois. It is free to attend but guests should register in advance.
Jenner & Block’s Pro Bono Efforts Lead to FCC Order Lowering Prison Phone Rates
A Jenner & Block team helped secure an order from the Federal Communications Commission lowering the rates that incarcerated persons and their families pay for phone calls.
On May 20, 2021, the Commission adopted an order lowering the interim rate caps on interstate inmate calling services to $0.12 per minute for all prisons and $0.14 for jails with average daily populations of 1,000 or more. The order also establishes caps on international calling services rates for the first time at all prison and jail facilities.
The team represented the Wright Petitioners, named after the late Martha Wright, who had struggled to pay for phone calls from her incarcerated grandson and later pushed for changes to the rules surrounding rates. The petitioners were among several advocacy groups and civil rights organizations that urged the Commission to lower the calling rates.
“The Wright Petitioners applaud the leadership of Acting Chairwoman Rosenworcel and the Federal Communications Commission for taking this important incremental step toward providing much-needed relief for incarcerated people and their families from unreasonably high calling rates and fees, including capping international rates for the first time,” said Rebekah P. Goodheart, co-chair of the firm’s Communications, Internet, and Technology Practice who led the team representing the Wright Petitioners. “Studies consistently show that keeping in contact while incarcerated reduces recidivism. We look forward to working with the Commission on further reforms to bring additional relief to incarcerated persons and their loved ones.”
The team included Partner Howard J. Symons and Associate Gregory R. Capobianco. Senior Paralegal Cheryl Olson and Practice Assistant Beth Gulden provided key support.
Pro Bono Client Released from Prison without Retrial
On May 6, our client Kenneth “Ken” Smith was released from state prison after serving 19 years for a murder and robbery that he did not commit.
The firm first took Ken’s case in 2006 after a state appeals court reversed and remanded his conviction for murder and 67-year sentence for a new trial. Since that time, various teams led by Partner David Jimenez-Ekman have represented the client through a second trial, a direct appeal, a third trial, another direct appeal, and a federal habeas petition.
Following appeals of his habeas petition, the Seventh Circuit sent an order calling for Ken’s immediate release without conditions at the end of April. This means that he is free from prison and will not be required to report to parole or a probation officer.
“We are grateful that, at long last, the justice system recognizes Ken Smith’s innocence, ending his almost two-decade nightmare,” Mr. Jimenez-Ekman told the Northwest Herald upon our client’s release. “The evidence of Ken’s innocence is overwhelming, and it is a tragedy it took so long for the justice system to acknowledge that. Ken looks forward to the hard and bittersweet task of rebuilding his life.”
The charges against Ken stemmed from a botched armed robbery. In March 2001, the owner of a strip mall burrito shop in McHenry, Illinois, was shot to death after he chased two armed, masked robbers out of his store carrying a knife. The state had no physical evidence linking Ken to the crime. There were no fingerprints from Ken at the scene, no DNA evidence, and no blood that could be linked to him. Instead, Ken was convicted based on a “confession” of an alleged co-conspirator, which was (a) procured after police falsely told him that his friends had already confessed and implicated him, (b) riddled with major inaccuracies that demonstrated he had no knowledge of the crime, and (c) force-fed through leading questions that supplied the only correct information in the entire statement. When the firm first took Ken’s case, the Illinois Second District Appellate Court had reversed and remanded his conviction for a new trial on the basis of a blatant Confrontation Clause violation.
Ken’s second trial occurred in 2008, and resulted in a second conviction that was overturned in 2010, when the Illinois Appellate Court held that the trial court had improperly excluded evidence implicating a completely separate group of perpetrators and exonerating Ken.
Indeed, in the years Ken’s case had been pending to that point, compelling evidence emerged showing that the crime was committed by three individuals completely unrelated to our client and his friends. At Ken’s third trial in 2012, the team put on evidence that those other individuals confessed – unprompted – numerous times to friends, family members, and police; they knew details about the crime that had never been made public; and there was physical evidence corroborating those other individuals’ confessions. The other individuals were seen with cuts and scrapes in the days after the crime; they were connected with a gun that matched the characteristics of the bullets recovered from the victim and found at the scene; and they were riding around in a car on the night of the crime that later was found burned in a field with the help of an accelerant. However, the court excluded important evidence implicating the other group, including compelling evidence of their motive to commit the crime, and also limited the defendant’s ability to cross-examine the only eyewitness to the crime. After three days of deliberation, the jury, still only having heard part of the story, convicted Ken again.
After Ken’s direct appeal was denied in January 2015, the firm filed a federal habeas petition for Ken that was assigned to Judge Andrea Wood of the Northern District of Illinois.
In March 2020, Judge Wood granted the habeas petition and vacated Ken’s conviction and sentence, ruling that evidentiary errors violated his constitutional rights. The court found that the Illinois Appellate Court improperly affirmed evidentiary exclusions that violated his right to present a complete defense and his right to engage in effective cross-examination.
The court wrote that “[g]iven the weaknesses of the State’s case,” the evidentiary errors had a “highly significant effect” on the trial result. The court wrote that “the evidence of the [other group’s] involvement is highly compelling if not conclusive,” that the court was “confounded as to how [the] evidence could not give a rational jury reasonable doubt as to [Ken’s] guilt,” and that, “[e]specially in combination with the exceedingly thin evidence supporting [his] convictions, the court is concerned that a miscarriage of justice has occurred here.” The court granted Ken a new trial, which would have been his fourth on the same charges.
Though the court’s habeas decision was a significant victory, the battle to secure Ken’s freedom was far from over. The State appealed Ken’s habeas victory, and Ken cross-appealed, asking for a ruling that the evidence was insufficient to support his conviction and that he should be released without possibility of retrial. Mr. Jimenez-Ekman and Partner Katharine R. Ciliberti,presented oral argument on the appeal and cross-appeal in November 2020, at which point the panel of Seventh Circuit judges expressed strong skepticism about the constitutionality of the conviction. Chief Judge Diane Wood commented during the argument that “it [was] hard to imagine a case with thinner evidence” than what was presented against Ken.
On April 29, 2021, the Seventh Circuit went even further than the district court, holding that the evidence was constitutionally insufficient to sustain Ken’s conviction. The Seventh Circuit opinion, which reflects a caustic rebuke of the state appellate court’s decision affirming Ken’s third conviction, notes that the evidence implicating the separate group of perpetrators “casts a powerful reasonable doubt on the theory that Smith and Houghtaling were the robbers that night. . . . With such a serious possibility of a third party’s guilt,we are convinced as an objective matter that no rational trier of fact could have found Smith guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.” The Seventh Circuit concluded that “the trial evidence failed to support Smith’s conviction beyond a reasonable doubt and that the Illinois Appellate Court was not just wrong, but unreasonable, in holding otherwise.” The Seventh Circuit remanded the case to the district court, with instructions to grant the petition for a writ of habeas corpus unconditionally, and ordered Ken’s immediate release from state custody—a tremendous victory for our client after nearly two decades of trying to prove his innocence.
On Thursday, May 6, 2021, Ken Smith walked out of Lawrence Correctional Center as a free man. In the days since, he has been spending time with his family and starting the long process of adjusting to life on the outside.
Several media outlets covered Ken’s release, including Law & Crime.
In addition to Mr. Jimenez-Ekman and Ms. Ciliberti, Associate Elena M. Olivieri, and former associate Emma O’Connor. The past trial teams included Partners John R. Storinoand Gregory M. Boyle, and Paralegal Chris Ward.
Former Pro Bono Client Juan Rivera opens Barber College with Former Prison Guard
The firm represented Juan Rivera in the third retrial of charges for the 1992 rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl. That trial resulted in conviction, and the firm assisted Stanford Law School Professor Lawrence Marshall, former director of Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law’s Bluhm Legal Clinic Center on Wrongful Convictions, who briefed and argued Mr. Rivera’s appeal from that conviction.
In 2011, a unanimous three-judge panel of the Illinois Appellate Court for the Second District reversed Mr. Rivera’s conviction, finding insufficient evidence to support his conviction in light of the DNA evidence excluding him as the perpetrator. Years later, in 2014, authorities announced that DNA evidence from the case matched a potential suspect in a separate murder.
Earlier this year, Mr. Rivera opened Legacy Barber College, 1546 W. Howard in Chicago, with his former prison guard, Bobby Mattison. According to an article in the 49th Ward newsletter, Mr. Rivera “returned to his roots in Rogers Park to make good on a promise he struck in prison with a guard: to give back by helping youth in underserved communities carve a path towards a successful career.”
The barbershop has partnered with Evanston Township High School and Oakton Community College in Des Plaines to offer alternative programs and college credits. The program also offers education on financial literacy, customer service, and how to run a business.
In addition to working with Professor Marshall, the firm partnered with the Bluhm Legal Clinic Center on Wrongful Convictions on the case. The firm team included Partners Thomas Sullivan, Terri Mascherin and Andrew Vail.
In this video, Ms. Mascherin discusses the case.
Court Hails “Just Result” for Veterans as an “Example of the Class Action Concept Working at its Best”
The US District Court for the District of Connecticut has granted final approval to a class action settlement in which the US Army agreed to reconsider the less-than-honorable discharges of thousands of veterans with service-related mental health conditions.
Jenner & Block, with the Veterans Legal Services Clinic at Yale Law School, represents Iraq war veteran Steve Kennedy and Afghanistan war veteran Alicia Carson, pro bono, in a nationwide class action against the Army. Mr. Kennedy and Ms. Carson alleged that after the Army discharged veterans with less-than-honorable status on account of symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, military sexual trauma, and other mental health conditions developed during their service time,the Army Discharge Review Board failed to account for those symptoms when it denied them upgrades in their discharge status.
On Monday, the court granted final approval to a settlement reached by the parties in November. In its opinion, the court described the settlement as “an example of the class action concept working at its best” because it “achieves a just result for many veterans, and for the Army they served.”
Under terms of the settlement, the Army will automaticallyreconsider thousands of discharge status upgrade applications under a lenient standard of review. Additionally, the Army will adopt procedural reforms, such as a universal telephonic hearing program, that will make it easier for veterans to applyfor upgrades in their discharge status and participate in related hearings.
During the final fairness hearing on the settlement last month,Judge Charles S. Haight Jr. had high praise for our pro bono work, saying on the record: “It's a fine thing … to see one of the great firms like Jenner & Block devote considerable resources to the pro bono representation of groups like these army veterans…”
Partners Susan J. Kohlmann and Jeremy Creelan led this matter, along with Associate Jacob Tracer and former associates Ravi Ramanathan and William Goldstein.
Read more in this press release from the Veterans Legal Services Clinic, in this Bloomberg article, and in this Stars and Stripes article.
Illinois Prison Project and Jenner & Block Welcome Home Kensley Hawkins
Kensley “Sonny” Hawkins, who turned 70 years old this year after spending over 39 years in prison, walked out of Shawnee Correctional Center last week a free man. Mr. Hawkins suffered from numerous serious medical issues that made him extremely vulnerable to COVID-19, and we are overjoyed that he returned home to his loving daughter and grandchildren.
Mr. Hawkins grew up in a single-parent household and was one of 10 children. To support his mother, he dropped out of high school and enlisted in the United States Army, where he simultaneously earned his GED, worked as a cook, and earned a National Defense Service Medaland and a parachute badge. After leaving the Army, Mr. Hawkins attended Chicago State University with dreams of becoming an electrical engineer but once again faced the overwhelming pressure of supporting his mother and his family. Mr. Hawkins dropped out of school yet again. In the midst of his financial stress, Mr. Hawkins’ brother committed suicide in their childhood home. Distraught and desperate, Mr. Hawkins agreed to be the get-away driver of the van used in a gas station robbery. The van was later traced back to a person who had been killed before the group went to rob the gas station. As a result, Mr. Hawkins was convicted for murder based on the conduct of his co-defendant, under the controversial theory of accountability.
Always industrious, Mr. Hawkins worked throughout his incarceration. He started as an upholsterer and cabinet maker at Stateville Furniture Factory. Skilled with his hands with a knack for engineering, Mr. Hawkins made products like desks, chairs, bookcases, and cabinets and was eventually promoted to “lead worker” at the factory. More recently, Mr. Hawkins ran the “Set Up” department of the Shawnee Metal Factory. If Mr. Hawkins has a product design, he can quickly prepare the sheet metal for welding and painting. Throughout his incarceration, Mr. Hawkins has been repeatedly recognized for his service and high-quality work and hopes to transfer some of the skills he’s acquired to his new life as a free man. Throughout his incarceration, Mr. Hawkins remained close to a large network of family and friends, including his devoted daughter Ramonia.
Mr. Hawkins was zealously represented by Department Counsel Lisa Schoedel at Jenner & Block, as part of IPP’s pro bono program. Ms. Schoedel's commitment and dedication to Mr. Hawkins and his case paid off: Last week, she received a call from the Illinois Governor’s Office, telling her that Mr. Hawkins would be coming home.
Working to Provide Outreach Services on Chicago’s West Side
Breakthrough is a non-profit organization that provides outreach services in underserved communities on Chicago’s West Side, partnering with those affected by poverty to build connections, develop skills, and open doors of opportunity. As a board member and long-time supporter of the organization, Jenner & Block Partner Terry Truax will participate in a virtual fundraising event launching the All In Campaign – the first-ever public look at upcoming plans in Breakthrough’s partnership with East Garfield Park. The event will take place April 22 at 7pm CT. To RSVP, please click here.
Jenner & Block Shortlisted in Chambers D&I Awards as “Outstanding Firm for Pro Bono”
As co-chair of the Campaign, Mr. Truax has been instrumental in leading Breakthrough during the planning and execution of the program, as well as raising awareness of the growing need of support in the East Garfield Park community. To learn more about Breakthrough’s impact on the Chicago community, please click here.
The firm is proud to be one of only 10 firms in North America honored for pro bono service in the Chambers Diversity & Inclusion Awards. As Chambers D&I notes, the awards “shine a spotlight on role models and trailblazers in pro bono and corporate social responsibility as well as inclusion.” The firm is noted for the depth, breadth, and commitment to its nationally recognized pro bono program. Also recognized is Tracy Hannan, associate general counsel at client Exelon, who is shortlisted in the “Outstanding Contribution to Diversity and Inclusion” category. In partnership with the firm, Ms. Hannan secured the early release of a pro bono client who was sentenced to life in prison as a juvenile. The awards ceremony will be held virtually on June 17.
Firm Team Successfully Represents Transgender Client in Name Change Hearing
On April 7, Jenner & Block Department Counsel Allison N. Glover and Staff Attorney Anthony L. Nguyen successfully represented a transgender client for her name change hearing. The team was introduced to the client through the firm’s partnership with the Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund (TLDEF) and its Name Change Project, which provides pro bono legal name change services to low-income transgender, gender non-conforming, and non-binary people.
Despite the pandemic, Ms. Glover and Mr. Nguyen fully prepared the client for the hearing. As a result, the client effectively and succinctly answered all questions from the judge, who then granted her legal name change petition. The team is currently securing certified copies of the court order so the client can make necessary changes to identification documents. Partner Gail H. Morse supervised the team.
DC Office Lawyers Honored for Pro Bono Service by DC Courts
Since 2011,the DC courts have published an annual Capital Pro Bono Honor Roll that recognizes lawyers who contributed 50 hours or more of pro bono service to those who cannot afford legal counsel. The 2020 Honor Roll includes 55 DC office lawyers. In a joint letter, DC Court of Appeals Chief Judge Anna Blackburne-Rigsby and DC Superior Court Chief Judge Anita Josey-Herring thank all honorees, noting that 2020 presented unique pressures like the pandemic. “We salute you for using your talents and expertise to help those unable to afford an attorney, and rely on your continued dedication and compassion in the face of new challenges that threaten equal access to justice,” the judges write.
The Honor Roll is sponsored by the DC Bar Pro Bono Center and the DC Access to Justice Commission. To learn more about the initiative, read this press release.
Judge Reduces Pro Bono Client’s 106.5-Year Sentence to 28 Years
In a victory for pro bono client Robert Rollins, United States District Court Judge Gary Feinerman reduced Mr. Rollins’ “stupendously long” sentence of 106.5 years to 28 years and one day. The decision means that rather than serve the remainder of his life in prison, Mr. Rollins should be free in a couple of years.
When he was 25 years old, Mr. Rollins was convicted for a string of three robberies within a week’s time. No one was hurt during the offenses, and he stole less than $10,000. In 2001, he was convicted of these offenses under a mandatory sentencing scheme whereby the trial judge sentenced him to 106.5 years.
Jenner & Block joined with a team from New York-based Debevoise & Plimpton to file a motion to reduce his sentence under the First Step Act. Last year, Judge Feinerman initially determined that he did not have authority to grant Mr. Rollins’ motion for a reduction in sentence. The firm and Debevoise team appealed to the Seventh Circuit, which upon agreement of the parties, vacated the district court’s ruling and remanded for further consideration.
In the district court, the government continued to argue that Judge Feinerman was not empowered to reduce Mr. Rollins sentence under the statute, and that even if he was, the sentence should remain 106.5 years. On March 17, Judge Feinerman reduced Mr. Rollins’ sentence. The court ruled that Mr. Rollin’s sentence was “exceedingly rare, resulting from the combination of the Government’s charging decision and Rollins’s decision to proceed to trial rather than cooperate and plead.” While acknowledging the seriousness of Mr. Rollins’ crimes, the judge wrote that “a de facto life sentence far exceeds appropriate punishment.”
Judge Feinerman expressly noted that Mr. Rollins has a clean prison disciplinary record, voluntarily participated in a course focused on helping inmates appreciate the severity of their crimes and the impact they had on their victims, and has worked as a cook in prison.
“In short,” the judge wrote, “he has demonstrated that he is committed to living a law-abiding life should he be given that chance.” Mr. Rollins, a veteran, very much looks forward to rejoining his family, the workforce, and contributing to society.
The firm team included Partners Andrew W. Vail and Monica R. Pinciak, Associate Joshua M. Levin, and Paralegal Katherine Mehaffie. Partners Michael T. Brody, Anton R. Valukas, Reid J. Schar, and Dean N. Panos assisted with the team with a Seventh Circuit moot court.
Jenner & Block Secures Compassionate Release of Pro Bono Client under First Step Act
Recently, US District Judge Sharon Johnson Coleman exercised her powers under the First Step Act and granted the petition for compassionate relief we filed on behalf of our client, Tracy Conley. By this ruling, Judge Coleman released Mr. Conley from prison more than five years before the end of his sentence.
Mr. Conley was convicted of participating in a conspiracy to rob a drug “stash house.” The stash house was entirely fictional, however, as were the drugs it supposedly contained and the armed men who supposedly guarded it. This case was one of many in which an undercover government agent presented a target with the opportunity to get rich. The scheme began in 2011, when a government agent presented Myreon Flowers with the opportunity to rob a fictional stash house. To trigger steep mandatory sentences, the agent stated the stash house contained a huge quantity of drugs and encouraged Mr. Flowers to recruit others and bring guns.
Mr. Conley became involved only because of what the Seventh Circuit described as two strokes of bad luck: On November 1, 2011, Mr. Conley went to work as usual, but was sent home because a piece of machinery had broken at the factory where he worked. On his way home, he stopped at a gas station where he ran into an old acquaintance. Unbeknownst to Mr. Conley, that acquaintance had joined Mr. Flowers’s group, which had planned the robbery for that very day. Mr. Conley agreed to go with his acquaintance, Mr. Flowers, and the others to what he thought was a job to clean a vacant apartment. On the way, government agents surprised the men and arrested everyone.
All of Mr. Conley’s co-defendants accepted plea deals for lesser charges. Mr. Conley maintained that he knew nothing of the plan to rob a (fake) stash house, but was convicted after a jury trial. Because his charges carried mandatory minimum sentences, Mr. Conley was sentenced to 15 years in prison – twice as long as any other co-defendant. In the years following Mr. Conley’s conviction, the fake stash house program received significant scrutiny. As more prosecutions emerged, so too did evidence suggesting that the government’s selection of targets for the scheme may have been racially motivated. Under increasing criticism, the government abandoned the program. One by one, Mr. Conley’s co-defendants served their lesser sentences and were released, but Mr. Conley remained in prison.
In 2018, Mr. Conley filed a pro se habeas petition, and Judge Coleman appointed Mike to represent Mr. Conley. Leigh joined the team at the start, as did Theo, who was part of the team for the habeas briefing. Eric joined the team last fall. Judge Coleman denied the habeas petition, but certified for appeal the argument that Mr. Conley’s conviction should be reversed on due process grounds, and because the fake stash house scheme targeted people of color. The team is continuing to prosecute that appeal.
With the habeas appeal being briefed, the team filed a motion for a sentence reduction under the First Step Act, also known as compassionate release. Leigh and Eric argued the motion in January, under Mike’s supervision. On March 4, Judge Coleman granted the motion and ordered Mr. Conley’s sentence reduced to time served. Judge Coleman accepted the team’s arguments that the circumstances demonstrated extraordinary and compelling reasons for compassionate release. She noted that Mr. Conley had never even met Mr. Flowers before the day of the planned “robbery,” and that Mr. Conley’s sentence was driven by the government’s decision of what charges to bring, not the Court’s decision of what sentence was warranted. That sentence was “grossly disproportionate,” “devoid of true fairness,” and served “no real purpose other than to destroy any vestiges of respect in our legal system and law enforcement that this defendant and his community may have had.” His disproportionate sentence was a “trial tax.” She concluded that “if there ever was a situation where compassionate release was warranted based on the injustice and unfairness of a prosecution and resulting sentence, this is it.”
Mr. Conley was released on March 17, after serving nearly 10 years in prison. He is now home.
Partner Michael T. Brody and Associates Leigh J. Jahnig, Eric S. Fleddermann, and Theo A. Lesczynski represented Mr. Conley in this important matter.