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Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Teaching Outside the Classroom: The Grover Thompson Clemency Hearing

Every now and then, it's good to get out of the classroom and into an actual advocacy environment. A few years ago, I attended the AALS mid-year evidence meeting in Cleveland and listened to a panel discussion in which Professor Stephen Saltzburg of George Washington University recommended that evidence professors stay in touch with courtroom practice by embracing opportunities to serve as advocates, magistrates, special masters and the like. I agree with him, and I would say his advice applies—and perhaps even more emphatically—to advocacy teachers as well. Imagine how myopic and jaded our teaching would become if our experiences were limited to the artificial world of classroom case files or the often overheated and even farcical arena of mock trial competitions!

When I joined the faculty at Southern Illinois University School of Law, I was not licensed to practice in Illinois. Luckily, I was licensed in a state that had reciprocity with Illinois, so I was able to apply for admission by motion to the Illinois bar. Since being admitted in 2009, I've tried to follow Professor Saltzburg's advice, mostly on a pro bono basis. I served as a hearing officer for a labor dispute at a local non-profit cooperative grocery store.  A colleague and I worked together on the rehearing of a first-degree murder case two years ago until problems with our client forced us to withdraw (she later pled guilty to second-degree murder). I'm handling a DUI case right now. And I'm also working as a supervisory faculty member and attorney with the Downstate Illinois Innocence Project, which will occasionally require courtroom and administrative board appearances.

In the latter capacity, I had a great advocacy and teaching experience a couple of weeks ago.  Our students had prepared a posthumous clemency petition for a man named Grover Thompson, who was convicted in 1982 of the attempted murder of an elderly woman in Mount Vernon, Illinois. (For more on the case and the hearing, click here).  Mr. Thompson always maintained his innocence, but tragically, died in a maximum security prison sixteen years into his 40-year sentence. A few years ago, the cold-case unit of the Carbondale police department solved a murder from about the same time period. In solving this murder, the department worked with local departments and discovered that the killer, Timothy Krajcir, had committed a string of rapes and murders in a four-state area.  As part of a deal to avoid the death penalty in Missouri, Krajcir confessed to more than nine murders and 30 rapes.  He also confessed to the crime for which Grover Thompson was convicted.

The students prepared a marvelous clemency petition and submitted it to the Illinois Prisoner Review Board. The Board makes advisory recommendations to the Governor. There aren't many rules or procedures governing an appearance before the Board, save one main rule: you get 12 minutes for a hearing, no more, and less is preferable!

Our hearing took place in the State Capitol on January 11. None of the students who helped prepare the petition had taken a trial advocacy class. We had to prepare a 12-minute case that would do three things: (1) convince the board that Grover Thompson was actually innocent; (2) persuade the board that Timothy Krajcir's confession to the offense was valid (the Mount Vernon police believed that Krajcir's confession was an opportunistic effort to claim credit for the crime and that he must have heard the details from Grover Thompson in prison); and (3) humanize Grover Thompson and the effect of his wrongful conviction on his family.  We had two police officers who wanted to testify in support of our petition, as well as Thompson's nephew, who had traveled to Illinois from Minnesota for the hearing.  I also thought, as did the DIIP directors, that it was important to involve the students in the presentation somehow.

That's a lot to cram into 12 minutes!  Now, I should state that one of the DIIP directors was working behind the scenes to get us an extension of time, but until the morning of the hearing, we did not know whether the extension would be granted. 

We planned, prepared and practiced a 12-minute version of the hearing and also a 20-minute version.  To ensure that no one went over time, we elected to proceed with testimony via short, controlled direct examinations, conducted by the students.  We rehearsed all afternoon the day before the hearing, and when we found out the next morning we would actually have 25 minutes, we rehearsed one more time.  The discipline of trying to make our complete case in 12 minutes helped our 25-minute case considerably.  Everyone knew what our theory of the case was, and each witness knew the 3 to 4 points we needed to get from their testimony.

The hearing itself was a great exercise in the principle Semper Gumby: always flexible.  It took place in a cavernous hearing room with horrible acoustics. To complicate matters, a construction project involving jackhammers was ongoing immediately outside the room. We could see the workers passing back and forth in front of the window. Finally, we were the last case called at the end of a long day of cases. The board president made it clear that everyone had read our petitions, that he had made an extraordinary concession to grant us extra time, and he hoped we would not waste anyone's time with our presentation. A truly daunting environment for any advocate, let alone three students who were conducting their first-ever direct examinations!

The hearing went extraordinarily well. We finished our case in 22 minutes, after which the board asked questions of our witnesses and advocates for another 25 minutes.

We won't receive news of the Board's recommendations for quite some time. In the meantime, however, working on the case and participating in the hearing was an invigorating experience and a rich teaching opportunity. Our students learned several important lessons: (1) Be prepared; (2) Rehearse and practice; (3) Learn to read the judge or hearing officer; and (4) Be flexible, because not all hearing environments are as nice as the law school's moot court room.

My experience caused me to reflect on the advocacy teaching opportunities that arise in real cases. I have no clinical teaching experience, but I know these opportunities must surely arise on nearly a daily basis. I'd love to hear from readers who run clinics about the advocacy teaching that goes on in a real case. The artificial and controlled case files we use to teach advocacy are necessary to teach discrete skills. But there are no substitutes for real issues, real cases and actual adrenalin!

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