This year is already a good year for Northwestern Pritzker School of Law’s Center on Wrongful Convictions, with three of its clients being cleared so far, including two on the same day.
The Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office on Jan. 16 announced it would drop charges against Eric Blackmon, who spent nearly 16 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit. That same day, a Rockford judge acquitted Patrick Pursley of murder after a two-day bench trial. Pursley had spent 24 years in prison.
Karen L. Daniel, the center’s director and a clinical professor of law, said she believes this is the first time the center’s work has helped clear more than one person from different cases on the same day.
However, she said she doesn’t think this will be a “bumper year” for the center. Daniel pointed out that both Pursley and Blackmon could have been exonerated in 2018.
“We’re really proud of the work we do,” Daniel said. “When we come to the end of a long process like this, it’s a time to celebrate and reflect, and get down to work on all the other cases we have left.”
Daniel estimated the center is working on around 50 active cases. She said the center is almost always at capacity. On Thursday, a New York judge vacated the conviction of Huwe Burton, another center client, finding that he was coerced by detectives into falsely confessing to the murder of his mother in 1989.
“We get well over 3,000 letters a year from people asking us to represent them. We do the best we can,” Daniel said. “Luckily, we have law firms we can partner with and organizations in the area that do this work.”
Daniel and the center partnered with Perkins Coie LLP and Riley Safer Holmes Cancila LLP in working on Blackmon’s case. Pursley’s case was handled by the center and lawyers at Jenner & Block.
“It’s a special opportunity that’s made possible by Jenner & Block’s long-standing commitment to pro bono to be able to take on a case like Patrick’s and obtain the necessary experts and deploy the firm’s resources and our attorney skills to bring justice,” said Andrew Vail, a Jenner & Block partner who was Pursley’s lead attorney.
Blackmon’s murder conviction was based on what Daniel described as “pathetic” eyewitness testimony — two women had claimed they saw Blackmon execute Tony Cox while they drove by in their car, but they didn’t identify him until months later. Daniel asked what were the chances one of the witnesses could accurately identify someone in a lineup she saw on the street two months ago.
“The chances are zero,” Daniel said. One of the eyewitnesses who said they saw Blackmon kill Cox later recanted her testimony.
In a follow-up e-mail, Daniel wrote that incorrect eyewitness identification testimonies are a “recurring cause of wrongful convictions,” as eyewitnesses “who are mistaken may passionately believe they are correct and thus may be very persuasive.”
“If there is no exculpatory DNA or other scientifically ‘certain’ evidence, it can be difficult to obtain exonerations even when there is powerful new evidence of innocence,” she added.
Pursley, meanwhile, was convicted based on ballistics testimony that later proved to be faulty — the bullets and casings fired from the gun recovered in Pursley’s home didn’t match the ones recovered at the scene.
While in prison, Blackmon became a paralegal. He suffered numerous court losses until May 2016, when the 7th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals found that Blackmon’s trial counsel was “constitutionally ineffective” for not investigating the witnesses who could back up Blackmon’s alibi.
That ruling paved the way for a Cook County judge to vacate Blackmon’s conviction in March 2018. Later that May, Blackmon posted bond and was free for the first time since his 2002 arrest. Cook County prosecutors held the door open for retrying Blackmon until Jan. 16, when they dismissed the charges against him.
The new ballistic evidence in Pursley’s case led to him earning a new trial, which played out earlier this month before 17th Judicial Circuit Judge Joseph G. McGraw, who cleared him of all charges.
“We had a very good judge who considered all the evidence and came to the right conclusion. To get to that place it took a tremendous amount of work that started with Patrick, involved Northwestern and a team from Jenner & Block,” Vail said.