Pro Bono Client Roberto Lazcano Reunited with Family after 24 Years Apart
On April 3, after 20 years of clemency, sentencing credit, and post-conviction petitions, client Roberto Lazcano was released from custody and returned home to his family.
Roberto received a 55-year sentence in 1996 following his conviction as an accomplice to first-degree murder. Roberto was 15 years old at the time of the offense. Following his family’s relocation from Mexico, Roberto was pulled into a gang. At the time of the offense, Roberto and fellow gang member Mario Ramos spotted a car full of boys they believed to be rival gang members. Roberto, on a bike, took Mario towards the car, and Mario shot the driver, Andrew Young. At trial, Roberto was represented by a lawyer later disbarred for incompetence, illegal conduct amounting to fraud, and abusing drugs during the time he represented Roberto. Following Roberto’s sentencing, Mario pleaded guilty and received a 40-year sentence. Mario was released from prison in 2016.
Roberto underwent a remarkable transformation while incarcerated. He had dropped out of school at 14, but in prison, he prioritized education and helping others. He earned a GED and a bachelor’s degree and served as a tutor. Accepting responsibility for his role in the crime and the harm he caused, he sought and received forgiveness from the parents of the victim.
Jenner & Block took Roberto’s case in 2000, after hearing his story from his parents and mentor, Ric Elias, CEO of Red Ventures, and his colleague Alexandra Garrison. Over the years, the firm filed three clemency petitions for Roberto. Associate Elin I. Park
, former partner Sarah Hardgrove-Koleno, and former associate Nick Kurk drafted the first petition. Partner Caroline L. Meneau
and former partner Elizabeth Coleman drafted the subsequent petitions with assistance from Staff Attorney Anna W. Margasinska
, paralegal Mary Patston, and former associate Shy Jackson.
Between clemency petitions, Caroline and Elizabeth successfully filed a motion that advanced Roberto’s out-date by helping him get credit he was entitled to for his time in juvenile custody. Partner Clifford W. Berlow
, Caroline, Associate Joshua M. Levin, and Elizabeth also worked on a successful legislative effort to provide further sentencing credit for education for numerous Illinois prisoners.
Roberto’s third clemency petition was filed in 2019. It stressed Roberto’s transformation, incompetent prior representation, and juxtaposed the length of Roberto’s sentence with that of the shooter, Mario, who had already been released on time served. Caroline presented the petition before the panel. She was joined by the victim’s father, Mr. Young, who explained that he forgave Roberto and asked the panel for his release. The State’s Attorney’s Office did not oppose the petition, and remarked that Roberto’s was the unique case fulfilling penological justifications prior to release.
Following a change in juvenile sentencing law, Cliff and Associates Sarah A. Youngblood and Hanna M. Conger
filed a post-conviction petition arguing for a resentencing hearing crediting Roberto with time served. The post-conviction team was aided by the third clemency petition. The State’s Attorney’s Office agreed not to oppose resentencing. Ultimately, the parties brokered a deal reducing Roberto’s sentence to secure his immediate release. In approving the deal, the court credited Mr. Young’s remarkable support of Roberto through his clemency process.
Roberto was released from IDOC custody on March 19. Following his release, he was taken into ICE custody pending deportation to Mexico. Facing concerns regarding potential COVID-19 infection while detained, Cliff, Hanna, and Sarah counseled Roberto through the deportation process with assistance from Partner Michele L. Slachetka
On April 3, Roberto returned to Mexico. He reunited with his parents after 24 years apart. Last week, a team of current and former lawyers held a zoom video conference with Roberto from his family’s home in Mexico. Roberto is looking forward to the future and grateful for all of the firm’s assistance. In addition to the lawyers named above, the team was aided by two dozen additional time keepers, numerous legal assistants, and docketing.
Illinois Governor Grants Clemency Petition for Pro Bono Client Charles Harris, Commuting Life Sentence to Time Served
This week, Governor Pritzker granted the clemency petition of longtime firm pro bono client Charles Harris, commuting his lifesentence to time served and ordering his release from Pontiac Correctional Center. Mr. Harris was sentenced to life in prison under the Illinois Habitual Criminal Act in 1988 for committing three armed robberies, even though two of the robberies occurred when Mr. Harris was a juvenile, no one was injured during any of the robberies, and a total of only $235 was taken during the course of all three robberies combined.
The team was led by Partner Thomas P. Sullivan and included Associates John J. Frawley and Bethany H. Felder. Together, the team drafted a Petition for Executive Clemency in which they argued that Mr. Harris’ life sentence constituted a gross miscarriage of justice given the nature of the crimes, the mitigating factors that led to those crimes, and the astounding personal reforms Mr. Harris made while incarcerated. Additionally, the team collaborated with Mr. Harris’ family and friends to obtain letters in support of the petition. The team also coached Mr. Harris for his interview with the Illinois Prisoner Review Board.
Mr. Harris’ release will end a total of 40 years spent in prison. Mr. Harris had previously submitted three petitions for executive clemency, all of which were denied. Mr. Harris looks forward to reuniting with his family upon release and spending time in his community educating young people about the criminal justice system.
Firm’s Pro Bono Client Featured in Four-Part Sun Times Series
Jesse Webster, the firm’s pro bono client who was granted executive clemency after serving 20 years of a life sentence on charges related to conspiracy to distribute cocaine, is the subject of a four-part series by Chicago Sun Times columnist Mary Mitchell. The series chronicles Mr. Webster’s run-in with the law at age 26 and how he had been in prison for 14 years and lost several appeals when he “crossed paths” with Partner Jessica Ring Amunson. A federal appeals court appointed the firm in 2009 to represent Webster in his last, and final, appeal. Ms. Amunson is photographed and quoted throughout the series, telling Ms. Mitchell that, “I was honest about how much odds were against” clemency. “But I decided to take on his clemency case because I could not understand why someone like Jesse would be spending the rest of his life in jail for a non-violent drug offense. It just made no sense to me that our criminal justice system would work that way.”
On March 30, 2016, President Obama granted executive clemency to Mr. Webster and 60 other individuals “serving years in prison under outdated and unduly harsh sentencing laws,” according to the White House. The series tells of Mr. Webster’s work to re-integrate himself in society since his release, including getting a job at Catholic Charities. It also describes Mr. Webster’s first face-to-face meeting with Ms. Amunson, in October at a restaurant in downtown Chicago. “It wasn’t like I was meeting her for the first time,” Mr. Webster says. “I felt like I knew her.” Ms. Amunson is quoted saying, “It was a pretty amazing thing to be a part of helping someone spend the rest of their life with their family, rather than spending the rest of their life in prison.”
In addition to Ms. Amunson, Partner Barry Levenstam and Associate Caroline DeCell worked on the case. The team’s efforts included petitioning Capitol Hill and sharing Mr. Webster’s story with major media outlets such as the New York Times. Ms. Mitchell also wrote several columns about Mr. Webster in the past and published Mr. Webster’s open letter to youth. “It took a lot of caring people to get Webster back home safely,” the series concludes. “Without them, he would still be wasting away behind bars.”