Our Pro Bono Commitment

Our Pro Bono Commitment

October 14, 2021 Article Highlights Team’s Pro Bono Efforts on Behalf of Debtor

An article in Rochelle’s Daily Wire features Jenner & Block’s pro bono efforts to assist a “hapless debtor” who endured a trial, two appeals and a remand proceeding to discharge $112,000 in student loans. Thanks to Partner Catherine L. Steege and Special Counsel Carl N. Wedoff, along with firm alum and retired bankruptcy judge Eugene Wedoff, the debtor is on the brink of discharging her loans. “Without pro bono counsel, this debtor never would have discharged her student loans... This writer submits that something is wrong with a system that requires a debtor to go through so much for so long and with no chance of success were it not for the generosity of distinguished lawyers from the top ranks of the bankruptcy bar,” reads the article.

CATEGORIES: Bankruptcy, Litigation

PEOPLE: Catherine L. Steege, Carl N. Wedoff

October 6, 2021 Pro Bono Efforts in Afghanistan Touch Individuals and Organizations in a Humanitarian Crisis

Jenner & Block has teams of lawyers assisting individuals and organizations navigate the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan. One team is helping NGOs navigate US sanctions laws so they can continue to work in Afghanistan, while another team is helping at-risk individuals leave the country. This work is part of the firm’s pro bono program.

Helping NGOs Provide Assistance in Afghanistan
When the Taliban took control of Afghanistan in mid-August,  we provided guidance to non-governmental organizations about how US sanctions could affect their ability to work in Afghanistan under the Taliban, which the US government has designated as a terrorist group. We helped the NGOs identify which of their humanitarian assistance programs were not prohibited by counterterrorism laws, allowing those programs to continue, and also identify other programs for which additional US government guidance or authorization was necessary.

The firm’s efforts also included conducting outreach to the US government on behalf of various organizations, helping to explain how the situation in Afghanistan affected their employees, their operations, and the programs they implement. Among other outreach, the team drafted and submitted requests for authorization to carry out programming in Taliban-controlled areas.

On September 24, the US Department of the Treasury issued two general licenses to support the continued flow of humanitarian assistance to the people of Afghanistan and other activities that support basic human needs there. As a result, NGOs can now carry out their work to help the people of Afghanistan without running afoul of US sanctions laws. Jenner & Block will continue working with organizations there and elsewhere to help provide lifesaving assistance consistent with US sanctions requirements.

The team is led by Partner Rachel K. Alpert and includes Associates Umer M. Chaudhry and Garrett J. Salzman. An article published by Ms. Alpert in Just Security proposes solutions to some of the challenges that the NGO sector faces in situations like Afghanistan.

Helping At-Risk Individuals Emigrate from Afghanistan
After the fall of Kabul, it was widely reported in the news (and confirmed by sources on the ground) that the Taliban had been delivering death threats to those seen as enemies or traitors to its regime. In these final chaotic days of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan a vast swathe of society – many of whom had spent years supporting Western state and civil society building endeavors - were suddenly trapped. Owing to the swift advance of the Taliban, these at-risk individuals were unable to flee the country. The international response to the growing refugee crisis has been disjointed and inadequate. 

In response to this humanitarian crisis, we currently have nearly 50 lawyers, led by Partners Debbie L. BermanIshan K. BhabhaPaul Feldberg, and Michael W. Ross and Of Counsel Richard J. Gray, from offices on both sides of the Atlantic working collaboratively to help those in mortal danger emigrate from Afghanistan and third-party countries. The firm’s efforts have taken the form of providing legal assistance, and where necessary engaging in lobbying efforts, to help identify US and UK entry requirements. We are also leveraging our international contacts to identify lawyers in Canada and Australia who are willing to undertake similar work in their respective jurisdictions.

At present, the firm is working to help 30 at-risk individuals, as well as their family members, who are seeking to leave Afghanistan. The list includes several academics, a female high-ranking former judge, a senior female police officer, a pregnant journalist,an interpreter, a government contractor employee and numerous other members of civil society.  All these individuals are at-risk from violent reprisals at the hands of the Taliban, on the basis of their gender, education, or perceived support for the international intervention in Afghanistan.

CATEGORIES: Afghanistan

PEOPLE: Debbie L. Berman, Richard J. Gray, Michael W. Ross, Ishan K. Bhabha, Paul Feldberg, Garrett J. Salzman, Umer M. Chaudhry, Rachel K. Alpert

September 30, 2021 Jenner & Block Amicus Brief Urges US Supreme Court to Strike Down Mississippi’s Abortion Ban

A Jenner & Block team has filed an amicus brief in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the US Supreme Court case considering a Mississippi law banning abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy. The brief urges the Supreme Court to affirm a lower court’s decision and strike down the law.

The brief was written pro bono on behalf of reproductive justice advocates and organizers. It focuses on the impact that Mississippi’s law would have on people of color as well as disabled, low-income, Indigenous, and LGBTQ+ people living in Mississippi and Louisiana.

“Amici have a unique window into the challenges people face when seeking to access abortion, and the additional barriers Mississippi’s 15-week ban will impose on marginalized people. They write to highlight the devastating consequences that will ensue if this Court eliminates the right to abortion,” reads the brief.

Partner Tassity S. Johnson and Associate Victoria Hall-Palerm wrote the brief. Partner Jessica Ring Amunsonassisted.

CATEGORIES: Appellate Supreme Court

PEOPLE: Jessica Ring Amunson, Tassity Johnson, Victoria Hall-Palerm

September 15, 2021 Jenner & Block Lawyers and Alumni Win Northern District of Illinois Pro Bono Award

The US District Court for the Northern District of Illinois and the Chicago Chapter of the Federal Bar Association awarded several of our lawyers with the 2021 Award for Excellence in Pro Bono Service for “providing outstanding pro bono and public interest representation in civil and criminal matters before the district court.” The award recipients were recognized for successfully completing three different cases:

  • In Conley v. US we represented Mr. Conley, who was convicted of conspiring to rob a fake drug stash house even though he was not a target of the prosecution, in a federal habeas challenge in the district court and on appeal.  The team also presented a petition for compassionate release, which the court granted, ordering his immediate release from prison. The award recipients included Jenner & Block Partner Mike Brody; Associates Eric Fleddermann and Theo Lesczynski; and former associate Leigh Jahnig.
  • In USA v. Rollins, we represented Mr. Rollins, who was convicted for a string of three robberies within a week’s time, in a reduction of a de facto life sentence. Partners Andrew Vail and Monica Pinciak, and Associate Josh Levin successfully argued for a reduction in sentence of 106.5 years to 28 years and one day. The judge wrote in his opinion that “a de facto life sentence far exceeds appropriate punishment.”
  • Paralegal Cheryl Kras, and former colleagues US Magistrate Judge Gabriel A. Fuentes, Christine Bowman, and Hon. Judge Brewer (ret.) also received the award for their work in Traharne, et al v. Illinois DCFS, et al., which was litigated and settled while Judge Fuentes and Ms. Bowman were with the firm. Judge Summers was the mediator on the matter.

CATEGORIES: Awards, Litigation

PEOPLE: Michael T. Brody, Andrew W. Vail, Monica R. Pinciak, Joshua M. Levin, Theo A. Lesczynski, Eric S. Fleddermann

August 23, 2021 Jenner & Block to Receive Corporate Pro Bono Partner Award

The Pro Bono Institute (PBI) will honor Jenner & Block with its Corporate Pro Bono (CPBO) Partner Award for the collaborative efforts with McDonald’s Corporation and the National Immigration Justice Center (NIJC) in achieving asylum for several pro bono clients.

For several years, volunteers from the legal department of McDonald’s have partnered with Jenner & Block and Goldberg Kohn Ltd. on approximately 20 cases referred by NIJC, working collaboratively to represent immigrants applying for asylum.

By working together, the in-house and law firm lawyers and staff share resources and divide responsibilities, such as interviewing and developing rapport with clients who have been through harrowing situations; drafting the client’s affidavits and briefs; reviewing medical, news, and police reports; gathering personal statements from the client’s relatives; meeting with expert witnesses; and preparing for immigration court hearings. The partnership has obtained asylum for numerous individuals who are fleeing persecution and violence in their home countries, and seeking to create a new life for themselves and their families in the United States.

Partner Wade A. Thomson leads the collaborative efforts of this important partnership. Other firm lawyers and staff involved throughout the collaboration include Partners Jennifer S. Amerkhail, Mark Davis, Terri L. Mascherin, Mike McNamara, Andrew F. Merrick, Megan B. Poetzel, Gay Sigel, Howard J. Symons, and Shaun M. Van Horn; Associates Umer M. Chaudhry, Brian B. Druchniak, Brenna J. Field, Maria del Carmen González, Meg Hlousek, Sam Jahangir, Ari Kanavy, Elpitha B. Lambros, Lindsey A. Lusk, Philip B. Sailer, and Hope H. Tone-Keefe; Attorneys Jennifer Beach, Edmundo Cuevas, Pedro Fernandez, and Anthony Nguyen; and several professional staff members including Terri Busch, Zulaikha Master, Fallon McDowell, Tricia Peavler, Margaret Petit, Paul Ramonas, and James Walsh.

Mr. Thomson and the legal teams will be recognized for the CPBO Pro Bono Partner Award on October 14 at 6:30pm ET during PBI’s Annual Awards Gala.

CATEGORIES: Awards, Pro Bono Award

PEOPLE: Terri L. Mascherin, Shaun M. Van Horn, Wade A. Thomson, Gabrielle Sigel, Andrew F. Merrick, Megan B. Poetzel, Jennifer T. Beach, Anthony L. Nguyen, Elpitha B. Lambros, Michael McNamara, Samuel Jahangir, Howard J. Symons, Lindsey A. Lusk, Philip B. Sailer, Brenna J. Field, Hope H. Tone-O'Keefe, Umer M. Chaudhry, Brian B. Druchniak, Jennifer S. Amerkhail, Maria del Carmen Gonzalez, Margaret M. Hlousek "Meg", Ariana Kanavy "Ari", Mark Davis

August 6, 2021 Jenner & Block Secures Settlement Agreement with NYCHA to Prevent Wrongful Evictions

Along with Legal Service NYC as co-counsel, Jenner & Block secured a settlement with the New York City Housing Authority, requiring the public housing agency to reform its rent adjustment system to prevent wrongful evictions and benefiting more than 400,000 NYCHA residents.

The agreement ensures that thousands of NYCHA tenants will have their rents reduced if their incomes were to decline – a process required by federal law that has become more urgent during the pandemic. The settlement also enhances protections for low-income residents by requiring that NYCHA may not prosecute nonpayment or chronic rent delinquency cases until they first resolve interim rent reduction requests or rent grievances. The settlement comes after a group of twelve families, who have lived in public housing anywhere between five and 50 years, sued NYCHA in federal court alleging illegal rent overcharges above 30% of income and eviction proceedings for unlawful amounts of rent.

NYCHA has agreed to pay tenants close to $190,000 in damages, lawyers’ fees, and rent overcharge claims and has six months to implement changes to its system-wide operations concerning rent readjustments and eviction cases. NYCHA is also subject to monitoring by the federal court for three years.

To learn more about the plaintiffs and the settlement, click here.

The Jenner & Block team included Special Counsel David W. Sussman, Associates Susanna Evarts and Olivia Hoffman, Law Clerk Keturah James, and former partner Andrew Weissmann.

CATEGORIES: Litigation, Pro Bono

PEOPLE: Olivia Hoffman, David W. Sussman

July 22, 2021 Firm Partners with BMO Harris, United Way of Metro Chicago, and NIJC to Offer DACA Clinic

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.

CATEGORIES: DACA

PEOPLE: Angela M. Allen, Nicole A. Allen, Benjamin J. Bradford (Ben), Andrew W. Vail, Erin R. Schrantz, Michael W. Ross, Megan B. Poetzel, Amit B. Patel, Shoba Pillay

July 15, 2021 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.) sought a preliminary injunction to stop the center. The brief argues that the court should deny that request. On August 5, Judge John Robert Blakey issued a one-page opinion denying the request, writing that the plaintiffs “have not met the standard for injunctive relief on their federal claims.”

“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.

CATEGORIES: Amicus Brief, Litigation

PEOPLE: Daniel J. Weiss, Randall E. Mehrberg, Gabriel K. Gillett, Elena Marie Olivieri

June 22, 2021 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.

PEOPLE: David J. Bradford, Susan J. Kohlmann, Alison I. Stein, Ali M. Arain, Lori B. Day, Danielle Muniz, Emily S. Mannheimer

June 15, 2021 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.

CATEGORIES: Awards, Public Interest Law Institute

May 21, 2021 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. 

CATEGORIES: Federal Communications Commission, Prison, Pro Bono

PEOPLE: Rebekah P. Goodheart, Howard J. Symons, Gregory R. Capobianco

May 12, 2021 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.

CATEGORIES: Pro Bono

PEOPLE: David Jimenez-Ekman, Katharine R. McLaughlin, Elena Marie Olivieri

May 11, 2021 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 SullivanTerri Mascherin and Andrew Vail.

In this video, Ms. Mascherin discusses the case.

CATEGORIES: Appellate, criminal defense, T Sullivan

PEOPLE: Terri L. Mascherin, Andrew W. Vail, Thomas P. Sullivan

April 29, 2021 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.

 

CATEGORIES: Litigation, veterans

PEOPLE: Susan J. Kohlmann, Jacob Lincoln Tracer, Jeremy M. Creelan

April 28, 2021 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.

CATEGORIES: COVID-19, criminal defense, Illinois, Pro Bono

PEOPLE: Lisa Marie Schoedel

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