Pro Bono - Law Firms Winston Staff Compiles Info On DNA Exoneration Cases

Thursday, September 1, 2005 - 01:00

In a locked storeroom in the back offices of Winston & Strawn, boxes of trial transcripts and police reports fill the shelves lining the walls. They have been collected here to create a blueprint showing how criminal justice can, and sometimes does, go terribly wrong.

On the third shelf on the right, towards the back, is a typical example: three boxes containing thousands of pages from the trial of Raymond Santana, one of seven youths who were originally charged in the infamous "Central Park Jogger" rape case.

The transcripts begin with the voice of Robert Burns, a lawyer for co-defendant Yusuf Salam: "Your Honor, in this case as I understand it, there are going to be statements by a particular defendant in which other defendants are mentioned. In the light of the fact that the statements made É" They could be the opening lines of any hearing in any case that unfolds every day across the country. But in this case, we now know that Raymond Santana was convicted in 1989 of a rape he didn't commit. He spent eight years in prison for it.

That makes his case - and the other cases collected here of defendants who were exonerated by DNA evidence - an invaluable resource for anyone seeking reforms of the criminal justice system.

But the information has to be in a usable form, and putting it in that form has become the largest pro bono project in Winston & Strawn history.

Lawyers and staff at the firm have been collecting all available court files in every one of the 156 known cases1 where DNA evidence has exonerated people who had been convicted of a crime. The firm has sent staffers to courthouses across the country to collect the files. They then make electronic copies of the documents, code them and use them to create a searchable database of information. When it is ready, that database will be made available to anyone - social scientists, law professors, lawyers or anyone else - interested in finding out what went wrong in these cases and formulating reforms to reduce the chances of it happening again.

It is a huge project, time consuming and expensive, but there is good reason for taking it on, said David E. Koropp, a litigation partner who is overseeing the project.

"You can't overstate how important his little universe of information is. These are 156 cases where something has gone terribly wrong," Koropp said. "Whenever you are on the political spectrum, no one wants to convict innocent people. This is a great project to start on making changes to the system."

Starting Out

The Innocence Project at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York was founded in 1992 to look into cases where DNA evidence could show conclusively that the defendant had been wrongly convicted. In 2003, leaders of The Innocence Project approached Winston & Strawn about culling data from about 40 of the project's files. That request quickly expanded into a much wider and potentially more useful task.

"We said, 'If we're going to look into these files, let's p¥ut it in a form we can use,'" said Greg McConnell, the pro bono coordinator at Winston & Strawn. Many of the case files at The Innocence Project were not complete, and the organization had little or no documentation on most of the more than 150 known cases of DNA exoneration. The firm decided to use its resources to track down court files on all of the cases around the country, put them in electronic format and create a searchable database of key information, he said.

About 115 lawyers, paralegals and other staff at the firm have worked on the project, as well as nearly 50 University of Illinois College of Law students, who have been reading through the documents and coding them. The Merrill Corp., which provides document management services to Winston, has kicked in about $40,000 worth of copying and imaging on the project, he added.

"I can't think of any other pro bono project that's come within sniffing distance of involving 115 people here," McConnell said.

Staffers at the firm have collected more than 100 of the case files and are currently working on the other 50, he said, adding that the number of DNA exonerations keeps growing. Once gathered, paralegals organize each case file, workers for Merrill create electronic images of the pages and then they are given to the law students or summer associates to mine for information.

The student "miners" read through the documents and use a template to gather and input relevant data into dozens of categories: race and gender of the victim and the convicted person; a timeline of the case, from the crime itself through conviction, appeals and exoneration; evidence of mental illness or retardation; information about any eyewitness identification; use of jailhouse snitches; types of forensic evidence presented and other information about how the case unfolded.

When the database is completed, possibly later this year, researchers will have the means to quantify aspects of cases in which it is known justice was not served.

"It's a huge undertaking," said Peter Neufeldt, one of the founders of The Innocence Project at Cardozo. His organization never had the manpower or money to tackle such a project, but the law firm has the resources to see it to completion. He envisions the completed database as being a source for sociological studies that could push policy reforms and legislation. "It could really be a gold mine of information."

Reviewing The Facts

Most of the cases are serious violent crimes such as rape and murder, from which DNA evidence is more typically available. They tend to make for interesting cases to read, but more so when you can see where things began to go wrong, Koropp said.

"These people have unquestionably been wrongfully convicted," Koropp said. "These transcripts are page turners to begin with, but through that lens, they are fascinating to read."

Sheila Frederick, a recent graduate of the University of Illinois College of Law who previously worked as a summer associate at Winston & Strawn, spent more than 14 hours reading through about 1,000 pages of transcripts and evidence in the case of Kenneth Waters.

He received life in prison in 1982 for the murder of Katharina Brow in Ayer, Mass. The conviction was based largely on testimony of Waters' ex-girlfriends, who testified that he confessed to them that he'd killed the woman. Waters spent 18 years in prison before new forensic tests showed that his DNA did not match bloody clothing that was held as evidence.

Frederick picked out the key evidence and recorded information ranging from forensic testimony to the witness accounts. It gave her insight into how justice is served and, in this case, how it wasn't, she said.

"I had not previously read through an entire trial transcript," said Frederick, who plans to work for the firm when she's done with her studies. "Documenting this is the first time we've pulled together why this happened."

Her roommate Karen Weber, another former Winston & Strawn summer associate who also worked on the project, said she was struck by the lack of attention to evidentiary detail in the wrongful conviction of Edward Honaker, who was convicted of rape in 1984. He served 10 years in prison before DNA exonerated him.

And for Jeremiah Kimento, the site manager for Merrill who is working on the project at Winston, the importance of the project isn't in the legal details, but in the human impact of the wrongful convictions. He said he is proud that he's been able to work on a project that he believes could have long-term benefits.

"The entire human element of these cases really gets you," Kimento said. "You see how these events affected these people's lives. It's really touching."

1 Since the publication of this article, six additional persons have been exonerated on the basis of DNA evidence.

Jim Day is Editor of Chicago Lawyer. This article originally appeared in the July, 2005 edition of Chicago Lawyer magazine. It has been reprinted with permission from Law Bulletin Publishers. David E. Koropp is a litigation partner and trial lawyer at Winston & Strawn's Chicago Office. He can be reached at (312) 558-5146. Gregory A. McConnell is the director of public interest law at Winston & Strawn. He can be reached at (312) 558-8068.

Please email Mr. Koropp at dkoropp@winston.com or Mr. McConnell at gmcconnell@winston.com with questions about this project.