Illinois Prison Project and Jenner & Block Welcome Home Kensley Hawkins
Our Pro Bono Commitment
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.
Team Wins Seventh Circuit Victory for Illinois Prisoner
A firm team representing an Illinois prisoner achieved an important victory in the Seventh Circuit last week when the court reinstated the prisoner’s lawsuit challenging a private healthcare contractor’s deliberate indifference to his serious medical needs. The court’s opinion paved the way for the prisoner to pursue his constitutional claims against the contractor in federal district court.
Robert Williams brought suit against Wexford Health Sources in 2017, challenging the contractor’s “one good eye” policy, under which it refuses critical eye care to prisoners like Mr. Williams as long as they retain a modicum of visual acuity in one eye. Although healthcare providers inside and outside the prison recommended eye surgery for Mr. Williams, Wexford refused that surgery for several years. At the time he filed suit, Mr. Williams was completely blind in one eye and suffering from a host of conditions in both eyes. The district court held that Mr. Williams’s complaint stated a colorable claim against Wexford for violating his constitutional rights. Yet the district court granted summary judgment in Wexford’s favor, holding that Mr. Williams failed to exhaust his administrative remedies as required by the Prison Litigation Reform Act and the Illinois Administrative Code.
The Seventh Circuit reversed that decision last week. In a precedential opinion, the court clarified the standards applicable to prisoners like Mr. Williams who used the emergency procedures to seek expedited review of their grievances by prison officials. The court explained that while those emergency procedures were recently amended to require additional steps, those additional steps were not required of Mr. Williams, who submitted his grievances before the amendment. In reaching this result, the court emphasized the importance of transparency and clarity in the grievance process, and criticized the prison authorities for trying to “move the goal posts while [Mr. Williams] was in the middle of his case and suddenly announce that special new requirements applied to him.” The court also questioned Wexford’s “dubious” decision to refuse the surgery that Mr. Williams needed.
Settlement Ensures that Medicaid Participants Get Access to Hepatitis Treatment
Jenner & Block represented the Legal Council for Health Justice in its successful effort to end Illinois' policy of rationing Medicaid participants’ coverage of life-saving drugs to cure hepatitis C (HCV).
The deadliest infectious disease in the United States, HCV affects an estimated 3.5 million Americans, including 68,400 Illinoisans. Previously, individuals enrolled in Medicaid were required to have severe liver damage before receiving coverage for treatment that would cure them of HCV. Additionally, some Medicaid participants were required to provide proof of sobriety for six months.
In October 2018, Jenner & Block joined the Legal Council for Health Justice and the Center for Health Law and Policy Innovation at Harvard Law School in sending a formal demand letter to Illinois officials on behalf of Medicaid participants.
On November 7, 2018, the Illinois Department of Health and Family Services announced it would change its policy. Now, a recognized HCV cure – direct acting antivirals, or DAAs – is accessible to thousands of Illinoisans, many of whom were previously denied treatment until they reached end-stage disease.
Associates D. Matthew Feldhaus, Alexander J. Bandza and Lindsey A. Lusk represented the council, with supervision from Partner Michael T. Brody.
Court Reverses Murder Conviction for Pro Bono Client
A team of Jenner & Block lawyers obtained the appellate reversal of a Kane County murder conviction based on what the Illinois Appellate Court said was inadmissible expert testimony from a well-known former FBI profiler and television commentator. The firm represented Shadwick King pro bono in the appeal of his murder conviction in the death of his wife, Kate.
On August 21, 2018, the Illinois Appellate Court ruled that the State should not have been allowed to use the expert testimony of Mark Safarik, who has appeared on numerous television shows, including Forensic Files, to establish that Kate King had been killed in the first place – a key disputed issue at Mr. King’s 2015 trial.
Kate King was found dead on a set of railroad tracks near the couple’s Geneva, Illinois, home in July 2014. Investigators suspected Mr. King of being involved in her death, and the evidence against him at his March 2015 trial was heavily circumstantial. The forensic pathologist for the defense testified that Mrs. King likely had died of heart failure. The State’s medical examiner, after at first leaving the autopsy report blank for “manner of death” and telling the lead detective at the autopsy that Mrs. King’s cause of death would be listed as undetermined, testified at trial that she was manually strangled.
The Appellate Court ruled that the State “broke the tie” with the profiler, Mr. Safarik, who was not qualified to give medical testimony yet testified that her cause of death was manual strangulation. The court also held that the trial court erred in allowing Mr. Safarik to testify to his opinion that the crime scene was “staged” by someone who wanted to distance himself from the crime scene and Mrs. King to throw off law enforcement. Mr. Safarik’s “staging” testimony, the court ruled, strayed into impermissible “profiling” testimony that “indirectly, but pointedly” identified Mr. King as the killer, “because, under the circumstances, no one else fit that profile.” The Appellate Court remanded the case to the Kane County Circuit Court for retrial. Prosecutors appealed the decision to the Illinois Supreme Court, which in January 2020 affirmed the Appellate Court’s remand for a new trial based on the inadmissibility of Mr. Safarik’s testimony.
The team was led by former partner Gabriel A. Fuentes, and with him were Partner Clifford W. Berlow and former associate Philip Kovoor.