Category Archives: Freedom’s Heroes

A Case for Mercy and Discretion in Criminal Justice

“I have always found that mercy bears richer fruits than strict justice.”

– Abraham Lincoln

So-called tough-on-crime policies in the United States over several decades have resulted in unanticipated changes in the criminal justice system that most Americans probably do not fully realize. Mandatory sentencing, policies such as “three strikes,” and increasing use of plea bargaining as opposed to jury trials have prompted an explosion in the prison population and unprecedented prosecutorial authority. With all due respect to those prosecutors who serve us well, we now know that increased power and immunity from abuses have enabled prosecutorial misconduct, a significant contributor to wrongful convictions.

While the Innocence Project and other organizations work to correct miscarriages and prevent others, and new models such as conviction integrity units seek to address the failure of the appeal process to correct conviction errors, a recent case demonstrated the appropriate use of an intact but rarely used remedy: mercy and discretion by public officials.

These capacities once broadly utilized by judges in sentencing may be the most efficient way to cure injustices whether wrongful convictions or unfair sentencing. In a recent illustration, no one questioned the guilt of Francois Holloway. The New York Times reported (here) and (here) that he was charged in 1995 with three counts of carjacking and using a weapon during a violent crime (he did not carry a gun but his accomplice did).

When the government prosecutor offered Holloway a plea deal with a prison term of 11 years, he declined. Holloway’s lawyer assured him that he would win at trial.

His attorney was wrong. Continue reading

First-of-its-kind Exoneration Expected in Dallas

Michael Phillips, an African American man falsely convicted of sexual assault, told everyone he was innocent, but after his attorney advised that he would be better off pleading guilty than risking conviction at trial, and after he then served out his 12-year prison term, he never thought his name would be cleared. However, on July 25, 2014, at 9 a.m. Mr. Phillips, 57, in a wheel chair due to sickle cell anemia, is expected to be exonerated in Criminal District Court 3 at the Frank Crowley Courts Building in Dallas, Texas.

Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins’ ongoing initiative to review untested rape kits revealed that Michael Phillips was innocent. According to the National Registry of Exonerations, this is the first time in the United States an exoneration of this nature has occurred…as a result of a district attorney’s systematic testing without active request by a defendant. Continue reading

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Paying Tribute to Innocence Movement Visionary Rob Warden…

This is an article about the event last Friday honoring the career of Rob Warden…Congratulations Rob!

From Northwestern University:

Leaders who reframed death penalty debate come together to honor Rob Warden

May 5, 2014 | by Hilary Hurd Anyaso

CHICAGO — When the Center on Wrongful Convictions (CWC) at Northwestern University School of Law opened in 1999, wrongful convictions were viewed as anomalies. There from the beginning, Rob Warden, the co-founder and executive director of the CWC, will be honored for his award-winning work at a symposium that marks his imminent retirement.

In the tribute to Warden, the symposium also will feature other leaders whose relentless work over the years has led to a sea change in the national discourse about the death penalty, shifted public perception and policies about wrongful convictions and resulted in hundreds of exonerations.

Co-hosted by the Center on Wrongful Convictions and the School of Law’s Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, “Champion of Justice: A Symposium to Celebrate Rob Warden’s Quest to Free the Innocent” will be held from 1:30 to 6:30 p.m. Friday, May 9, at Northwestern University School of Law, 375 E. Chicago Ave., Thorne Auditorium. The event is free and open to the public.

Barry Scheck, professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law and co-director of the Innocence Project, widely known for its use of DNA evidence to exonerate the wrongfully convicted, will give the keynote address at 4:45 p.m.

Larry Marshall, co-founder of Northwestern’s Center on Wrongful Convictions and currently a professor at Stanford Law School, will deliver the opening address at 1:40 p.m.

(Marshall led the 1998 landmark National Conference on Wrongful Convictions and the Death Penalty. Journalists from around the world came to Northwestern Law to cover the historic gathering that for the first time brought together dozens of people released from death row with scholars, activists and lawyers in a highly publicized examination of wrongful convictions.)

The symposium will feature a number of tributes to Warden, including those given in a video sponsored by Kirkland & Ellis and the Cohen Law Group. Warden also will be interviewed on stage and receive a tribute from exonerees.

Marshall will lead a panel discussion on how innocence changed the death penalty debate; a sexual assault survivor who misidentified her attacker will give a presentation; and a panel discussion on the causes of wrongful convictions and reform initiatives will be led by Steve Drizin, a clinical professor and assistant dean at the Bluhm Legal Clinic at Northwestern Law who has done leading work on false confessions.

For more information about the event, see

CLE credit will be available for this event.


Warden, an investigative journalist whose reporting has helped to free scores of innocent men and women, co-founded the CWC with Larry Marshall, a former Northwestern Law professor, in the spring of 1999. The CWC was founded in the wake of the historic conference on wrongful convictions and the death penalty held at Northwestern University School of Law in November 1998. The conference, which gathered together the largest ever number of exonerated death row inmates on the stage of the School of Law’s Thorne Auditorium, focused the country and the world on the risk of executing the innocent and helped to reframe the debate about the death penalty.

During the 15 years since the founding of the Center on Wrongful Convictions, the work of Warden, Marshall and the CWC staff and attorneys influenced then-Illinois Gov. George H. Ryan’s decision first to declare a moratorium on the death penalty and then to grant clemency to all of the remaining Illinois death row inmates in January 2003. The Illinois legislature’s decision to abolish the death penalty and Gov. Pat Quinn’s decision to sign the abolition bill into law would never have happened were it not for the work of Warden and the CWC.

Under Warden’s leadership, CWC work also has spurred wide-ranging reforms aimed at preventing wrongful convictions. Most recently, Warden was an invited guest of Illinois State Rep. Scott Drury when Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn signed into law a bill expanding the requirement that interrogations of homicides be electronically recorded to include other serious felonies. Warden has been a prodigious scholar since arriving at Northwestern, publishing numerous law review articles and several books on subjects related to wrongful convictions and the death penalty. He also has been instrumental in the creation of a network of innocence clinics around the country.

In May 2012, the National Registry of Exonerations, the most comprehensive collection of exonerations in the United States ever assembled, was launched with a report covering 873 exonerations from 1989 through February 2012. Since then, the registry has added exonerations at a rate exceeding 200 per year. Warden has played a pivotal role in the formation of this joint project of the University of Michigan Law School and the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern Law. The Registry provides detailed information about every known exoneration in the United States since 1989 — cases in which a person was wrongly convicted of a crime and later cleared of all the charges based on new evidence of innocence.

Pat Vaughan Tremmel, associate director of media relations, contributed to this story.

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