Patrick Pursley Acquitted after 25 Years Based on Precedent-Setting New Ballistics Evidence
A Jenner & Block team secured a significant victory on behalf of pro bono client Patrick Pursley. On January 16, 2019, Mr. Pursley was found not guilty of the 1993 first-degree murder of Andy Ascher in a retrial before Illinois Circuit Judge Joseph McGraw.
Mr. Pursley was originally convicted in a 1994 jury trial in which the state relied heavily on the testimony of a state ballistics examiner that a firearm attributed to Mr. Pursley fired the bullets and cartridge cases found at the crime scene. Although Mr. Pursley maintained his innocence and sought post-conviction ballistics testing, Illinois law did not provide for this type of testing at the time, and his request was denied. However, Mr. Pursley persisted. While in prison, Mr. Pursley wrote an article stating that the law should keep up with technology and allow for ballistics testing in post-conviction settings just as it did at the time with DNA. After lobbying efforts on Pursley’s behalf, the Illinois legislature amended the law in 2007 to provide for post-conviction ballistics testing.
In October 2008, at the request of Northwestern’s Center on Wrongful Convictions, the firm agreed to assist Mr. Pursley in his effort to get the state of Illinois to retest the ballistics evidence. On January 26, 2011, the Illinois Appellate Court, reversing a decision by the lower court, granted his request, making People v. Pursley the first case in the country to allow a prisoner new ballistics testing under a Post-Conviction Testing Act.
The firm then submitted the ballistics evidence to two preeminent and independent ballistics specialists who examined the evidence using new technology and concluded that Mr. Pursley’s firearm did not fire either of the bullets or either of the cartridge cases found at the crime scene. In December 2016, Judge McGraw of the Winnebago (IL) County Circuit Court held a three-day evidentiary hearing on this evidence, and on March 3, 2017 he vacated Pursley’s conviction and awarded him a new trial. At that time, Mr. Pursley was released on bond after spending more than 23 years in prison.
The state then appealed Judge McGraw’s decision, to no avail.
On January 10, Mr. Pursley’s retrial began in Winnebago County, with closing arguments heard on January 15. On January 16, Judge McGraw announced his decision to acquit Mr. Pursley, stating that the “evidence in 1993 was scant by today’s standards, and when you start with scant evidence you’re not in a good position to reevaluate it years later.” He further commented that the defense’s ballistics experts demonstrated conclusively that the cartridge cases were not fired from the gun attributed to Mr. Pursley.
For more than a decade, a diverse team of lawyers has been dedicated to overturning this wrongful conviction. Partners Robert R. Stauffer and Andrew W. Vail and Associates Kevin J. Murphy and Monika N. Kothari led significant aspects of the case. . Associate Sara Kim and paralegals Eric Herling and Nick Perrone provided invaluable assistance before and during trial. Firmwide, more than 60 professionals – from lawyers to paralegals to library services – contributed 9,478 hours to this case over more than a decade.
The case generated significant media attention throughout the years. Various news outlets such as NBC and the Associated Press have reported on the retrial and various pre-trial proceedings. In the past, both The National Law Journal and Law360 pointed to the case when awarding the firm with pro bono recognition.
Seventh Circuit Unanimously Rules Pro Bono Client is Entitled to Evidentiary Hearing
A Jenner & Block team secured a significant win from the Seventh Circuit on behalf of pro bono client Anthony Lee, who has been incarcerated since 1995. On December 21, a panel of judges unanimously ruled Mr. Lee was entitled to an evidentiary hearing on his claim for ineffective assistance of counsel based on his trial counsel’s failure to investigate and call five witnesses at trial.
In 1996, Mr. Lee was convicted of aggravated sexual assault and kidnapping and sentenced to 100 years in prison. The trial had no physical evidence or eyewitness testimonies other than testimony from Mr. Lee and his accuser, L.M. Prior to Mr. Lee’s trial, five potential witnesses submitted affidavits to Mr. Lee’s trial counsel that corroborated Mr. Lee’s testimony and contradicted his accuser’s. However, trial counsel did not call any of the five witnesses to testify at trial and never contacted them.
In 1998, Mr. Lee began pursuing a claim for ineffective assistance of counsel in state court. Although Mr. Lee pleaded a prima facie claim under Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984), the state courts rejected his claim without ever granting him an evidentiary hearing on the merits. The state courts reasoned that Mr. Lee suffered no prejudice from trial counsel’s apparent failure to investigate the witnesses because the affidavits did not necessarily demonstrate that the witnesses would have made a difference at trial.
Jenner & Block began representing Mr. Lee in 2013. In 2017, the firm filed a federal habeas petition in the Northern District of Illinois. Although stating that it was a “close call” and “perhaps not the result this Court would reach on a blank slate,” the federal court held that the state courts did not unreasonably apply Strickland, and therefore dismissal was required. The firm filed an appeal to the Seventh Circuit.
On October 22, 2018, Jenner & Block Associate Abraham M. Salander argued the appeal before a panel of judges. Judge Easterbrook led the court’s questioning and focused on whether Mr. Lee’s requests for an evidentiary hearing in state court were sufficiently detailed to entitle him to a hearing in federal court under the federal habeas statute. After oral argument, the court ordered the parties to submit copies of Mr. Lee’s requests for an evidentiary hearing in state court along with the state courts’ rulings on those requests. Jenner & Block submitted a brief supported by 37 documents demonstrating that Mr. Lee’s requests were sufficient under federal law.
On December 21, the Seventh Circuit unanimously ruled Mr. Lee was entitled to an evidentiary hearing because, if the witnesses were called to testify, it was “unlikely” they “would have parroted their affidavits and refused to say another word.” The court specifically praised the firm’s “enthusiasm” and collection of relevant information in response to the court’s post-argument order.
The firm team was led by Partners Bradley M. Yusim and Barry Levenstam, who, along with Paralegal Mary Frances Patston, were on the case since the beginning of the firm’s representation.
Partners Michael T. Brody, Anton R. Valukas, Randall E. Mehrberg and Megan B. Poetzel assisted with oral argument preparation. Partner Jessica Ring Amunson and Associate William L. Von Hoene worked on the case at earlier stages.
Appellate Court Affirms Firm Team’s Win of a New Trial for Patrick Pursley
A Jenner & Block team won another significant victory on behalf of pro bono client Patrick Pursley, who served 23 years in prison on wrongful charges of murder. On May 3, the Illinois Second District Appellate Court affirmed 17th Judicial Circuit Chief Judge Joseph McGraw’s decision last year to vacate Mr. Pursley’s conviction and award him a new trial. The State had appealed Judge McGraw’s decision. This week’s ruling was based on new ballistics evidence establishing that the gun recovered from Mr. Pursley’s residence did not – contrary to the Illinois State Police testimony presented at his trial – fire bullets and cartridge cases found at the crime scene. Associate Kevin J. Murphy argued Mr. Pursley’s case before the appellate court. “The appellate court got it right,” Mr. Murphy said in a Rockford Register-Star article on the case. “Patrick has presented new and powerful evidence of his innocence.”
Other members of the Mr. Pursley’s team include Partners Andrew W. Vail and Robert R. Stauffer and Associate Monika N. Kothari. In addition, Partners Anton R. Valukas, Michael J. Nelson and Clifford W. Berlow, along with Associate Matthew T. Gordon, assisted with briefing and preparation for oral argument.
Jenner & Block Named to National Law Journal “Pro Bono Hot List”
For the fifth consecutive year, Jenner & Block has been named to The National Law Journal’s “Pro Bono Hot List,” as one of only seven law firms across the United States selected for this recognition. “Pro bono and the work we do provides representation to those who otherwise would not be in a position to protect or defend or pursue their rights,” said Partner Andrew W. Vail, co-chair of Jenner & Block’s Pro Bono Committee.
A feature article published by The National Law Journal spotlights the firm’s significant work on a voting rights and gerrymandering case (Gill v. Whitford), in which the firm partnered with the Campaign Legal Center in its work on the case. “Jenner & Block is the best. Their lawyers on voting rights cases are incredibly dedicated to obtaining a just result,” said Gerry Herbert, the senior director of voting rights and redistricting at the Campaign Legal Center.
The profile also highlights Partner Adam G. Unikowsky’ s “Hat Trick for Pro Bono at Scotus.” Last term, Mr. Unikowsky argued three cases before the US Supreme Court within the span of four weeks and achieved unanimous wins in all three. “The cases are a point of pride because they demonstrate the firm’s deep commitment to pro bono litigation and its ability to achieve significant victories at the Supreme Court for individuals most I need of experienced counsel,” Mr. Unikowsky said.
Firm Team Achieves Victory in Pro Bono Voting Rights Case
Jenner & Block won a victory when a federal judge rejected the efforts of the American Civil Rights Union (ACRU)—a conservative organization devoted, in part, to rooting out “voter fraud” in counties with large populations of racial minorities and Democratic-leaning swing state counties—to purge voters from Broward County’s rolls. In American Civil Rights Union v. Brenda Snipes, the ACRU alleged that the Broward County’s supervisor of elections, Dr. Brenda Snipes, failed to maintain accurate voter rolls and violated Section 8 of the National Voter Registration Act; the group sought a court order requiring Dr. Snipes to purge voters. In 2016, the United Healthcare Workers East union intervened in support of Dr. Snipes and Broward County voters. The firm represented United Healthcare on a pro bono basis.
After a five-day trial in July 2017, the court found every piece of evidence offered by ACRU unconvincing, concluded that its accusations were thoroughly unfounded, and held that Broward County’s voter list maintenance program was fully compliant with federal law. On March 30, 2018, Judge Beth Bloom ruled in Dr.Snipes and SEUI's favor. In doing so, the judge wrote that Dr. Snipes “implemented a general program that makes a reasonable effort to remove the names of ineligible voters from the official lists of eligible voters by reason of death or change of address.” The judge also held that the ACRU failed to prove a violation of Section 8 of the NVRA. “The court recognizes that the NVRA has a nationwide application, and for that reason, it declines to apply a subjective approach that would vary widely from jurisdiction to jurisdiction,” she wrote.
The Jenner & Block team includes Partner Kali N. Bracey, Associate Tassity Johnson, former partner Carrie Apfel and former associate Marina Jenkins.
The Heart of the Matter 2017 Report
Jenner & Block is pleased to present The Heart of the Matter
, our annual report that covers highlights of our pro bono and community service from 2017.
Our dedicated micro-website reflects the breadth of Jenner & Block’s pro bono program. Through featured articles and videos, we have illustrated stories of how Jenner & Block has changed the lives of the clients and organizations we are privileged to represent.
Jenner & Block Named to National Law Journal “Pro Bono Hot List”
To stay informed about new pro bono developments in 2018, please also visit The Heart of the Matter blog
For the fourth consecutive year, Jenner & Block has been named to The National Law Journal’s “Pro Bono Hot List,” as one of only 12 law firms across the United States selected for this recognition.
A feature article published by the NLJ spotlights the excellent results firm teams achieved in six pro bono cases won in the US Supreme Court in 2015-2016, as well as the significant transactional work done by a multi-disciplinary, cross-office team for the Young Center, a nonprofit that represents unaccompanied immigrant children.
The article also notes that more than 75,000 pro bono hours were contributed by firm lawyers in 2016 alone, representing an average of 138 hours per lawyer. Nearly 94 percent of lawyers performed 20 hours or more of pro bono – an all-time firm record.
Firm’s Washington, DC Office Recognized as Pro Bono Leader
Jenner & Block’s Washington, DC office was once again recognized for its outstanding leadership in the area of pro bono service. At the 14th annual “40 at 50” Judicial Pro Bono Recognition Breakfast held on April 27, 2017 at the E. Barrett Prettyman Courthouse,the judges of the District of Columbia federal courts honored local law firms in which at least 40 percent of all attorneys dedicated 50 or more hours in 2016 to providing free legal representation to individuals with limited financial resources or to charitable organizations. Chief Judge Merrick B. Garland of the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit and Chief Judge Beryl A. Howell of the US District Court for the District of Columbia were among those in attendance.
Judge Garland expressed his gratitude to the legal community for fighting for access to justice in the District. “The need is high. You fill that gap,” Garland said, also telling the assembled lawyers that their work tells people that they matter. “Clients get validation that their legal problems are important,” he stated.
Beyond achieving the “40 at 50” benchmark, Jenner & Block was noted as one of a select group of three firms where more than 65 percent of all attorneys contributed at least 50 hours of pro bono service in 2016.
The DC Circuit Judicial Conference Standing Committee on Pro Bono Legal Services sponsors this annual event to promote the goal that each lawyer in the District contribute at least 50 pro bono hours per year. The Judicial Conference has recognized the firm every year since the “40 at 50” list’s inception.
To read the Judicial Conference’s press release, please click here.
Pro Bono Client Released From Prison Pending Appeal and Retrial
On April 27, pro bono client Patrick Pursley was released from prison on bond after being incarcerated for more than 23 years on a murder conviction that was recently thrown out.
Earlier this year, lawyers from Jenner & Block won Mr. Pursley a new trial based on new ballistics evidence establishing that a gun recovered from his residence did not—contrary to evidence presented at his 1994 trial—fire bullets and cartridge cases found at the crime scene. 17th Judicial Circuit Chief Judge Joseph McGraw further ruled that new testimony and conclusions by the State of Illinois’ own examiners, who refuted Illinois State Police testimony presented at Mr. Pursley’s initial trial, entitled Mr. Pursley to a new trial. The State is appealing Judge McGraw’s decision.
The firm’s lawyers appeared before Judge McGraw on April 13 and argued that, given the likelihood Mr. Pursley would be acquitted of the charges against him at a retrial, he should be granted a low monetary bond pending the appeal. The judge set a bond of $50,000 for Mr. Pursley, a fraction of the $500,000 to $1 million bond sought by the State. The judge’s decision required Mr. Pursley to post bail of $5,000, which he did with the help of friends and family. The Rockford Register Star published a story Mr. Pursley’s release, in which he said that the Jenner & Block team and other lawyers representing him were “doggedly determined and excellent.”
Jenner & Block, along with Steven A. Drizin of the Northwestern Center on Wrongful Convictions, has represented Mr. Pursley since 2008, winning on appeal a reversal that he was entitled to new ballistics testing under the Illinois Post Conviction Act. You can read more about that work in The National Law Journal article titled, “This Win Required a Trip to the Legislature.”
The Jenner & Block team representing Mr. Pursley includes Partners Andrew W. Vail and Robert R. Stauffer and Associates Kevin J. Murphy and Monika N. Kothari.