February 22, 2013

On February 21, 2013, a team of Jenner & Block attorneys, working with Northwestern University’s Center on Wrongful Convictions (CWC), achieved an extraordinary legal victory for pro bono client Nicole Harris, who previously had been convicted of murdering her son.  Ms. Harris will be released from prison by noon on February 25, 2013.

In 2005, a Cook County jury had convicted Ms. Harris of murdering her 4-year-old son, and she was sentenced to 30 years in prison.  The boy had been found dead, with the elastic string from his fitted bedsheet wrapped around his neck.  After an exhausting 27-hour interrogation of Ms. Harris, who was 23 years old at the time, police extracted a confession from her.  The video-recorded confession was the principal evidence against Ms. Harris at the trial.

The trial also featured several serious errors by the trial judge.  Among these was the exclusion of eyewitness testimony from Ms. Harris’ 5-year-old son that his younger brother had wrapped the string around his neck, himself while playing “Spiderman.”

The Firm and the CWC became involved in the case after trial, arguing post-trial motions and sentencing.  After unsuccessful attempts at post-conviction relief in the state courts, the team petitioned for federal habeas corpus relief in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois.  That petition, too, was denied.

The team then appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit.  In a 90-page opinion issued in October 2012, Seventh Circuit Judge David Hamilton, joined by Judges Daniel A. Manion and Michael S. Kanne, reversed the denial of the habeas petition and ordered that Ms. Harris be released unless the state elected to retry her within 120 days.  The state then filed a petition asking the United States Supreme Court to consider the case.

At that point, the team asked the Seventh Circuit to order Ms. Harris released on bond pending further proceedings.  The state responded by asking the Seventh Circuit not only to deny bond – contending that the state was likely to prevail in the Supreme Court – but also to give the state more time to elect to retry Ms. Harris.  The team responded to the state’s arguments on February 20, 2013.  The next day, less than 24 hours after receiving Ms. Harris’ papers, the Seventh Circuit not only ordered Ms. Harris released from prison, but ordered that the release happen by noon on Monday, February 25, and that no monetary bond be required.

The Firm’s team is led by Partners Robert R. Stauffer and Sandi J. Toll and includes Associates Kara L. Kapp, Andrew D. Kennedy, and Elin I. Park, working with Steven A. Drizin and Alison R. Flaum from Northwestern.  Partners Jeffrey S. Eberhard and Sarah Hardgrove-Koleno also provided assistance on the matter over the last seven years. 

“We are grateful to have achieved this result for Ms. Harris,” said Mr. Stauffer.  “It is very unusual for a federal appellate court to find it necessary to order a state prisoner released pending further proceedings; that the Seventh Circuit did so here suggests that it believes not only that her conviction was unconstitutional, but that it agrees with us that Ms. Harris is actually innocent.”

The case is receiving widespread media attention.