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Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Help Wanted: Defense Lawyers -- October 30, 2009

A few days ago, Jim, an old man who lives on my gallery, had someone drop off several packages of his legal papers, including a draft for a PLA, which is a Petition for Leave to Appeal to the Supreme Court. I was in the back of the cell washing up when I heard the thud of papers hit my steel desk. For months, this man has been pestering me with legal questions, and for advice on his case. I do not mind helping him out a little, but I am a very busy person. From the time I wake in the morning until the time I go to bed, I am predominately occupied with reading, writing, analyzing the stock market, exercising, organizing and reorganizing my property and my cellmate's clutter, as well as working on my own case. I have many ritualized routines, and systems I have developed. It is sometimes difficult for me to make time for other matters.

A jail house lawyer prepared a PLA petition for Jim; Jim wanted me to review it, and I agreed. Apparently, he thought I would review all these other materials as well. No, I will not, and I sent everything back to him, except for the PLA. The PLA was poorly written, both in the statement of facts, which is supposed to be an objective synopsis of the trial, earlier appeals, and in the proceeding arguments. I went over the PLA draft very carefully, and wrote him a couple of pages of my recommended changes and additions that should be made.

When I returned his PLA with my notes, I also included a letter, which prisoners call a "kite." I told him to make the changes, although I realize that the state Supreme Court is not going to grant the petition. The court only hears a very small fraction of cases filed, and most of these are from prisoners on death row, or who have a major issue that is causing discord among the appellate courts in Illinois. All death penalty appeals go directly to the Supreme Court, but the rest of us with natural life, 100 or 20 year sentences never get heard by the highest court. In all the years that I have been in prison, other than former death row prisoners, I have only known a few people who have had their PLA's accepted. I told him this is just a formality to preserve his issues for the federal courts, not to get his hopes up, and to prepare for his post conviction appeal.

Today, I spoke with Jim, and he told me that he wants me to review his entire case including transcripts, what discovery he has, his direct appeal, and the prosecutor's rebuttal. This will be a major assignment, and I will have to abandon my life routines for some time. He realizes that I do not want to undertake this project, so he said he will pay me for my work. I told him I would think about it.

When I entered the prison system, I knew very little about the law. I should have forced myself to learn, but I left the work up to the lawyers my parents hired for me. Time and time again, these lawyers submitted horribly incompetent appeals. One lawyer, Dan Sanders, had his license suspended, for filing my federal appeal without citing any Constitutional issues or arguments. All he did was copy a former state appeal, and sent it in with large sections blank. Most disastrous, and fatal for me, was that he filed it one day late. Lawyers from the MacArthur Justice Center and the University of Chicago Law School later filed for a rehearing, and then filed in the federal circuit court; they even submitted a PLA to the U.S. Supreme Court. However, all the courts ruled that I was not entitled to effective assistance of counsel on a federal appeal, and there would be no exception to the statutory one year deadline rule. My ignorance of the law, and my catastrophic experience with the justice system has made me want to help those coming in on the new who are fighting their convictions.

Although I was uneducated, and ignorant regarding the law, in the first five years of my imprisonment, I slowly acquired more and more knowledge. Ironically, now that all my regular set of appeals are over, I believe I know more about criminal law than my former lawyers who failed me. I do not want what happened to me to happen to others, particularly those who are young, given an excessive sentence, or who are innocent (however, that is very rare). I have not only given Jim advice and assistance, but a number of other inmates. Unfortunately, many are unmotivated, and usually only act on my advice if I do all, or much of the work, for them.

At one time, the law library had old timers, like myself, working there who knew much more than I do about the law. However, that has changed, and now only a few legal clerks have such expertise. One of them is a short, old, gay man who I don't like talking with, and the other works in segregation. Prisoners often lack funds to hire a lawyer, and many lawyers are shysters. Those shysters are not only out there, but inside. Many prisoners will try to sell an inmate a dream, take their money, and file a nonsense appeal. There was one shady jail house lawyer who went by the name "Ace." He ripped off quite a few prisoners until he was beaten up; he then fled to protective custody to hide, and hustle even more people.

I do not like the idea of being paid for legal help. I want to do this because of my desire to see others get a fair shake, or the most they can within a flawed justice system. Another problem with giving Jim and some others assistance is that even if I were the best lawyer in the state, sometimes ultimately, there is no hope. Jim is close to 50 years old, and even if he were to succeed in getting a new trial, from the overwhelming evidence against him, he would most likely be reconvicted. His best hope would be to accept a plea bargain which the prosecutor may offer to avoid the costs of a new trial, especially in his very small, rural county with little financial revenue. However, the best deal I can imagine him getting is 40 years, to serve at 100%, and Jim will be long dead before serving that. By the way, Jim is currently serving two natural life sentences that run concurrently for a double homicide.

Many prisoners are looking for counsel. Many of us write to law schools, law firms, or legal organizations with pro bono programs. I have written about 50, asking for help. Only a quarter of them even bothered to respond, and those wrote rejection letters based on having a full case load, or that they don't accept accountability cases. Some told me they only wanted DNA cases. Last year, the University of Chicago's Innocence Project took a close look at my case, and I met with one of their lawyers and an investigator. This lawyer went over a lot of my legal papers, but in the end, told me she had lost some personnel and was unable to dedicate herself to another case. Before this, my parents had hired a professor at Chicago-Kent Law School. After two years, he and his students had done very little, and I was about to fire him for his lack of progress, among other issues. I will not be had by another lawyer. This professor withdrew his representation after being told that my mother and I were seeking other counsel and advice. That was just fine with me, as I never wanted his representation to begin with. As with all my lawyers, except my original public defenders, my parents were choosing and hiring them.

Back in the late 1990s, Northwestern University's Investigative Journalism class took my case. This journalism class is taught by Professor David Protess, and has received a lot of media attention for its work in exonerating innocent prisoners. Their most famous exoneration was Anthony Porter, who came days away from execution when students obtained a confession from the true murderer. It was this case which caused the state's governor to cease all executions and commute all death sentences to natural life without parole. The lawyer who worked on the Porter case was Daniel Sanders, and it was him who introduced my case to Professor Protess. Initially, I was optimistic to have these students investigating my case. I thought they may be able to obtain new evidence I could use in an actual innocence post conviction petition. However, it soon became apparent to me that the students on my case were very young, and not destined to become Magnum P.I.s. After being threatened by a person who may have had valuable information, they dropped my case, and I never heard from them again.

Although I am now knowledgeable about the law, and could write my own successive post conviction, I needed someone to help secure affidavits and new evidence for me. Affidavits are essential to a post conviction appeal, and my original was thrown out due to a lawyer failing to attach them to my petition. I also needed a lawyer to spar with the prosecutor in motions, if my appeal is accepted, and a lawyer for an evidentiary hearing. I could file a petition and ask for a public defender to be appointed, however, the Cook County Appellate P.D.'s office is notorious for their overburdened case logs, and incompetence. I am sure there are a few good lawyers working there, but very few.

After much searching, my parents found a lawyer who has recently formed her own private practice. I like the idea of someone who has the spirit to try to make it on her own. It shows me dedication, ambition, and also motivation: three factors I am looking for. I want someone relatively new who is fresh, and not going through the motions for an employer. I also don't want a lawyer who will put my case on the back burner, juggle my case with numerous others, or be resistant to my ideas. It is my petition, my last chance, and things must be done my way. I have corresponded with and spoken to this lawyer on a number of occasions. After reviewing my case, she came to the prison to meet me. She seems to be very personable and friendly, but more importantly, she is energetic, committed, and competent. She has made a good impression on not only my parents, but myself. I am pleased to have received a letter from her just before I began writing this; my parents and her have signed a contract. Jennifer Blagg is now officially my counsel, and I hope she is the last lawyer I will ever hire, and the first to succeed at procuring me a new trial.


  1. Bravo! May the Force be with you two!

  2. Hi Paul! I have been reading for a few months now...first time poster. Congratulations to you for hiring someone with drive. I hope that things work out for you.


  3. You mentioned there were few doing appeals that are innocent. What do you think the percentage is?

  4. Paul, you are mistaken about why the students under the direction of Prof. Protess dropped your case. Yes, a man who I think was involved from the get go threatened to kill them (and other horrible things). But it was Protess' wise decision to stop the investigation rather than put the students' lives at stake. You don't name names, so I will keep quiet too. The police were never informed about these threats, and I now wonder if that was a mistake. Men who threaten lives should be reported.


    Old story about dan sanders.


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