Free Bernina Hanukkah Action

On December 19, 2022, over 30 people joined a Hanukkah celebration at Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker’s home in Chicago to demand that he sign the executive clemency petition for Bernina Mata. The #FreeBernina Team and Love & Protect organized the action on the second night of Hanukkah, a celebration of a struggle for liberation, to urge Governor Pritzker to liberate Bernina, other criminalized survivors and all who are suffering under the violence of incarceration.  The action was co-sponsored by American Friends Service Committee Chicago’s Peacebuilding Program, Tzedek Chicago, Chicago Light Brigade (shoutout @kellyhayeswrites), MAMAs, and the Transformative Justice Law Project.

Free Bernina Light Installation December 19, 2022

People sang Hanukkah songs, heard powerful testimonies, and honored the Hanukkah tradition by creating a “Free Bernina” light installation.  The crowd learned about the holiday from Tzedek Rabbi Brant Rosen and were led in song by cantor Adam Gottlieb and #Free Bernina Team member Debbie Southorn. April Ward of MAMAs shared a moving testimonial about the prison conditions her son, Mickiael Ward, is forced to endure in an IDOC prison and a moving tribute by Kelly Hayes of Lifted Voices. Joey Mogul, co-counsel for Bernina with Rachel White-Doman of the Illinois Prison Project, also described the State’s racist and homophobic prosecution of Bernina. To read more about the action, check out the article in Windy City Times.

In 1998, at 28 years old, Bernina stabbed and killed John Draheim in her home after he attempted to sexually assault her. The State charged Bernina with capital murder, despite significant mitigating circumstances including her extensive history of sexual abuse at the hands of her step-father and father and her belief that she was about to be raped.

To secure the death penalty, the State seized on Bernina’s racial and sexual identity to argue that she intentionally killed him. The State claimed Draheim was making an unwanted sexual pass at her, and that caused Bernina as a “hard core lesbian” him to kill him. A prosecutor argued “a normal heterosexual woman would not be offended by such conduct as to murder.” During Bernina’s trial, the State paraded 10 witnesses before the jury who testified she was gay, presented 3 books from her bookcase with gay titles and referenced her lesbian sexual identity on 17 occasion to prejudice a Boone County jury to motivate them to convict and kill her. She was sentenced to die in 1999.

In 2003, her death sentence was commuted to life as part of a successful clemency campaign. She is currently serving a life sentence. If prosecutors had not sought the death penalty, she would likely be free today. Her only chance to be free from prison is for Governor Pritzker to commute her life sentence.

The #FreeBernina Team is asking Governor Pritzker to grant her clemency petition and commute her sentence so she can come home in 2023. Please support her clemency petition by emailing Governor Pritzker and Lieutenant Governor Juliana Stratton here.

Joey and Kris Clutter, a paralegal at the People’s Law Office, are proud members of the #Free Bernina team.

Photos thanks @kellyhayeswrites!

Nora Snyder 

Nora Snyder (she/her) joined the People’s Law Office as a Civil Rights Litigation and Movement Lawyering Fellow in 2022. As a law student at the Northwestern Pritzker School of Law, she worked in the MacArthur Justice Center civil rights litigation clinic, focusing on cases on behalf of transgender women imprisoned in Illinois. She also interned at Beyond Legal Aid, Uptown People’s Law Center, and the National Immigrant Justice Center, and volunteered with the Transformative Justice Law Project. Prior to joining the office, Nora spent two years clerking in the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals staff attorney’s office, working largely on pro se cases. Nora is a trained restorative justice Circle Keeper and is active in the mutual aid network in her neighborhood, Edgewater.

Hakeem Muhammad

Mr. Muhammad’s upbringing in the “Black belt of Chicago” inspired him to become an attorney that focuses on protecting the human rights of communities that have been historically marginalized. He has spoken and written extensively on the criminogenic impact of structural racism on Chicago’s African American communities. Prior to law school, Mr. Muhammad lectured in African American political thought at Michigan State, U.C Berkeley, and Harvard Debate Counsel. Subsequently, Hakeem Muhammad became a Public Interest Law Scholar at Northeastern University School of Law. During his time at Northeastern School of Law, Mr. Muhammad was a recipient of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers Fellowship and would also be awarded the Oliver Wendel Holmes Scholarship by the Massachusetts Bar Association. Upon graduation from law school, Mr. Muhammad worked as a trial attorney for the Committee for Public Counsel Services where he worked extensively in the racial justice litigation unit working to innovate motions to challenge the impact of racism in criminal trials.

Welcoming our New Fellows

The People’s Law Office is pleased to announce the launch of its Civil Rights Litigation and Movement Lawyering Fellowship, with two inaugural fellows, Hakeem Muhammad and Nora Snyder.

We welcome them to PLO and look forward to working with them throughout their two-year fellowship.

Mr. Muhammad’s upbringing in the “Black belt of Chicago” inspired him to become an attorney that focuses on protecting the human rights of communities that have been historically marginalized. He has spoken and written extensively on the criminogenic impact of structural racism on Chicago’s African American communities. Prior to law school, Mr. Muhammad lectured in African American political thought at Michigan State, U.C Berkeley, and Harvard Debate Counsel. Subsequently, Hakeem Muhammad became a Public Interest Law Scholar at Northeastern University School of Law. During his time at Northeastern School of Law, Mr. Muhammad was a recipient of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers Fellowship and would also be awarded the Oliver Wendel Holmes Scholarship by the Massachusetts Bar Association. Upon graduation from law school, Mr. Muhammad worked as a trial attorney for the Committee for Public Counsel Services where he worked extensively in the racial justice litigation unit working to innovate motions to challenge the impact of racism in criminal trials.

Nora Snyder (she/her) joined the People’s Law Office as a Civil Rights Litigation and Movement Lawyering Fellow in 2022. As a law student at the Northwestern Pritzker School of Law, she worked in the MacArthur Justice Center civil rights litigation clinic, focusing on cases on behalf of transgender women imprisoned in Illinois. She also interned at Beyond Legal Aid, Uptown People’s Law Center, and the National Immigrant Justice Center, and volunteered with the Transformative Justice Law Project. Prior to joining the office, Nora spent two years clerking in the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals staff attorney’s office, working largely on pro se cases. Nora is a trained restorative justice Circle Keeper and is active in the mutual aid network in her neighborhood, Edgewater.

Free Mutulu Shakur: Calls Grow for Compassionate Release for Dying Black Liberation Activist

Watch Nkechi Taifa, lawyer and CEO of the social justice-centered consulting firm Taifa Group and longtime friend and supporter of Mutulu Shakur and Brad Thomson from the People’s Law Office and Mutulu Shakur’s current attorney talk to Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman about the urgent push for the compassionate release of longtime political prisoner Mutulu Shakur from prison. #FreeMutulNow!

Click here to watch the full interview on Democracy Now!

Click here to view the petition for writ of habeas corpus filed last week for Mutulu.

PLO Opened 53 Years Ago Today

“We had decided to call ourselves the People’s Law Office, informally at least, and our purpose was easily encapsulated in the obligation to be worthy of that name.” – – – Dennis Cunningham

On August 1, 1969 a dedicated band of ’60s radicals opened the People’s Law Office in a converted sausage shop located at 2156 N. Halsted Street on Chicago’s North Side.That founding band was comprised of attorneys Francis “Skip” Andrew, Dennis Cunningham, Jeff Haas, and Don Stang; law students Seva Dubuar, Ray McClain, Flint Taylor and Jack Welch, and a volunteer staff that included BPP member Ann Campbell and, I think, Rising Up Angry member Norrie Davis.53 years later we are proud to say that we have done our best to continue to be worthy of the name. Today’s PLO members, carrying on in the footsteps of hundreds of lawyers, law students, and staff who are treasured alumnae and alumni are attorneys Ben Elson, Jani Hoft, Joey Mogul, Jan Susler, Flint Taylor, Brad Thomson, Michael Deutsch (of counsel) and John Stainthorp (of counsel); staff members Lourdes Arias, Kris Clutter, and Alexis Pegues, and summer interns Molly Crane, Julia Van Horn, Emani Miles, and Tayleece Paul.La Luta Continua!

Follow this link to a short film documenting some of our work over the past five decades.

Positions at People’s Law Office

2023 CIVIL RIGHTS LITIGATION AND MOVEMENT LAWYERING FELLOWSHIP

People’s Law Office is seeking one or more post-graduate fellows, beginning in the fall of 2023.

The program is a two-year commitment, with the possibility of continuing at the firm at the end of the fellowship. The program is designed for newly admitted attorneys (with less than 5 years experience) who are interested in civil rights and criminal defense litigation and working with and on behalf activists and organizers fighting for social change.

The Civil Rights Litigation and Movement Lawyering Fellowship will provide an opportunity to work in all practice areas in which People’s Law Office provides representation. Fellows will participate in all aspects of civil litigation in federal court, including written discovery and depositions, legal research, drafting motions and memos, and participating on trial teams. Additional opportunities include representation of clients in criminal matters at both the trial level and post-conviction phase.

Our attorneys and legal workers have successfully fought for the civil and human rights of people who have been wrongfully convicted, falsely arrested, tortured and subjected to other forms of state violence. Our office has also steadfastly provided legal support to social movements fighting for radical change, representing political organizations, campaigns, activists, and individuals who have faced government repression because of their political views or organizing work.

Qualifications

  • J.D. degree or expected by spring 2023
  • Admission to the Northern District of Illinois, or ability to be admitted by fall 2023
    • Preference toward candidates with anticipated or current admission to the Illinois bar
  • Strong research and writing skills
  • Experience working in civil rights or other aspects of public interest law
  • Demonstrated commitment to supporting marginalized and oppressed communities 
  • Experience and/or familiarity with social justice organizing and movements fighting for social change

Application Process

Please submit:

  • A cover letter or email describing your interest in civil rights litigation, movement lawyering, and the work of People’s Law Office.
  • A current resume
  • Law school transcript (unofficial is acceptable)
  • Writing Sample
  • 2-3 References

All materials should be sent via email to: Fellowship[at]peopleslawoffice.com

We will be conducting interviews and extending offers on a rolling basis.

Salary and Benefits

The position is a full-time, two-year position. Starting salary begins at $65,000 annually, with the potential for higher rates based on experience. Compensation also includes generous benefits and paid time off. 

Additional Information
Fellows are expected to live in, or be willing to move, to the Chicagoland area.

BIPOC, women, people of all gender identities and gender expressions, and persons with disabilities are encouraged to apply. 

2023 SUMMER INTERNSHIPS

People’s Law Office is accepting applications for our 2023 summer internship and educational program, which focuses on civil rights litigation rooted in social and racial justice and radical legal work.

Interns will participate in a wide range of litigation-related work and will be exposed to a progressive law office that has been committed to being “people’s lawyers” since 1969. Our attorneys and legal workers have successfully fought for the civil and human rights of people who have been wrongfully convicted, falsely arrested and subjected to excessive force and torture at the hands of law enforcement officials and prosecutors. The office has also steadfastly represented political activists and individuals who have been targeted by government officials because of their political views or organizing work.

The program is open to law students, with a strong preference for students who have completed their second year of law school. Candidates should demonstrate experience in and/or commitment to social justice, organizing and/or social movements. To apply please send a resume, cover letter and writing sample to plo[at]peopleslawoffice.com. Applications will be accepted until December 11, 2022, and will be reviewed on a rolling basis. Remote positions are available, with a preference for applicants residing in Chicago. The position includes a stipend.

BIPOC, women, people of all gender identities and gender expressions, and persons with disabilities are encouraged to apply.

Burge torture taxpayer tab eclipses $210M — and counting

This article was originally published on InjusticeWatch

Follow this link to read all of Flint’s taxpayer charts that were referenced in this article.

By Flint Taylor | June 14, 2022

Fifteen years ago, my colleagues at the People’s Law Office and I were engaged in a legal and political battle with the city of Chicago over police torture. Then-corporation counsel Mara Georges was threatening to renege on a settlement agreement that had been reached on behalf of several torture survivors who had been awarded innocence pardons by former Gov. George Ryan.

Seeking to bolster our public case that a settlement was more fiscally responsible than continuing to fight the individual lawsuits in court, we filed a Freedom of Information Act request for attorneys’ fees and costs paid to private counsel to defend Jon Burge, his band of henchmen, and the city in these cases. The total to that point was $10 million. Add to that the $7 million that Cook County taxpayers kicked in to finance a four-year investigation of Burge torture by special prosecutors that was widely condemned as a whitewash, and the tab for police torture in Chicago, as of September 2007, was roughly $17 million.

Fast-forward 15 years, and the city and county are repeating the same approach to police torture cases. The city is currently fighting seven lawsuits filed by torture survivors in federal court. And the county’s special prosecutor continues to fight tooth and nail to maintain convictions that were obtained through alleged torture.

The only thing that has changed is the total cost to taxpayers, which has now ballooned to more than $210 million — and counting.

How have we reached this figure? Through public-records requests and available data, we tallied the total amount paid in defense and special prosecutor fees, settlements, state Court of Claims and Torture Commission expenditures, and pensions to alleged torturers. This figure doesn’t include the unknown amount that the federal government expended in successfully prosecuting Burge and later investigating, but refusing to indict, his two self-anointed “right-hand men.”

A pie chart showing the amount paid for settlements, verdicts and reparations ($108.2 million), pension payments ($38.7 million), Chicago lawyers' fees ($37.5 million), Cook County lawyers' fees ($19.5 million) and state torture commission and court of claims ($7.9 million).

City of Chicago ‘pinstripe patronage’ ($37.5 million)

“Pinstripe patronage,” so dubbed by legendary Chicago attorney R. Eugene Pincham, has long been an important aspect of the city and county’s response to police violence litigation. In the 1970s, they collectively expended more than $2 million in defense of Cook County State’s Attorney Edward Hanrahan and the Chicago police officials who planned and carried out the fatal raid on the apartment of Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton. In the 1980s, the Chicago City Council appointed former prosecutor William Kunkle to represent Burge in Andrew Wilson’s federal torture case, and the parade of private lawyers in the Burge cases has continued to this day.

Read More

Burge squad gone, but the cases live on

Demond Weston’s petitions for relief were routinely denied. But that was before the full extent of Chicago police torture under disgraced commander Jon Burge was known, and before the three Burge subordinates who questioned Weston were accused of torturing confessions out of suspects in a series of other cases.

The total pinstripe patronage now stands at $37.5 million. Three enterprising lawyers, Andrew Hale, Terry Burns, and James Sotos, and their associates are by far the leaders in collecting fees to defend the city in police misconduct lawsuits. Collectively, they have taken home $21 million in defense of the Burge torture cases (and, as remarkably, $116 million in total taxpayer-funded fees and costs from 261 police misconduct cases since 2004).

Cook County special prosecutors and ‘pinstripe patronage’ ($19.5 million)

The Cook County Board and Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office have also practiced pinstripe patronage by hiring outside lawyers (often former prosecutors) to represent the county in the Burge cases. In 2002, Circuit Judge Paul Biebel, in charge of the court’s criminal division, appointed two former state’s attorneys, Edward Egan and Robert Boyle, to investigate the mounting allegations of torture and abuse by Burge and his crew. Four years and $7 million later, they finished their investigation with a report that exonerated former State’s Attorneys Richard M. Daley and Richard Devine while invoking the statute of limitations as a rationale for not returning any indictments.

In 2009, another special prosecutor was appointed, this time to resist the claims of torture that were being heard in the Cook County criminal courts, a task that the private law firm headed by Michael O’Rourke took on with a vigor that has rivaled that of their city defense brethren. The county has paid these private lawyers more than $8.5 million since 2009, according to my calculations based on the monthly meetings of the Cook County Finance Committee (curiously, the running total posted by the committee in its monthly agenda is about a million dollars less).

The county also pays private lawyers to represent former prosecutors who are sued for their alleged roles in the conspiracy to torture and cover up. Together with settlements in those cases, the county has paid another $4 million in public monies. Thus, the county has expended at least $19.5 million in opposing claims of torture in the criminal courts and otherwise furthering the cover-up of the Burge torture scandal.

Pensions to Burge and his alleged co-conspirators ($38.7 million)

Despite public outcry, Burge continued to collect his pension after he was fired by the Chicago Police Department, convicted by a federal jury for lying about torture, and served 54 months for perjury in Butner federal penitentiary. Those payments had amounted to more than $900,000 when he died without beneficiaries in September 2018. His two foremost “right-hand men,” John Byrne and Peter Dignan, who have been found to be torturers by Office of Professional Standards investigators and a federal civil jury, have collected an additional $2.65 million. When all the detectives and supervisors who have been found or repeatedly accused of torture and cover-up are included, the number balloons to $43 million.

Read More

Former Chicago police superintendent accused of lying in murder case

A man exonerated after 33 years in prison for double murder says records prove then-Lt. Philip Cline lied to jurors during his trial about taking his confession in 1987. He is suing the city.

Several Area 2 commanders and police superintendents — most notably Phil Cline, LeRoy Martin Sr. and Fred Rice — also played important roles in the torture scandal, and their pensions add another $5.3 million to the mix. All totaled, these pensions amount to $48.37 million, approximately 80% of which has been funded by the city.

City settlements, verdicts, and reparations ($108.2 million)

While spending taxpayer money without compunction to defend police torture, city leaders have shown an opposite attitude when addressing the damage that the Burge torture scandal has visited on its African American victims. After its unsuccessful attempt to renege on the 2006 group settlement, city lawyers during the Richard M. Daley and Rahm Emanuel administrations employed a similar strategy in almost all the successive cases that were brought by exonerated torture survivors — fight the case tooth and nail, racking up million of dollars in fees, and then reluctantly settle the case as the trial date neared. After Emanuel, under intense pressure, agreed to a historic reparations package that included financial compensation to 57 torture survivors who had no legal recourse and made a full-throated admission of culpability, one would have thought that the days of the city insisting in court that there was no systemic torture had finally come to an end.

Read More

The Stanley Wrice Jury Returns

Civil rights lawyer Flint Taylor questions why the Lightfoot administration has hired lawyers who aggressively challenge in court the credibility of defendants’ contentions they were tortured into confessing by members of the crew of former Chicago police commander Jon Burge.

Unfortunately, Mayor Lori Lightfoot, in stark contrast to her repeated public condemnations of the pattern and practice of torture under Burge, has doubled down on the city’s defense of police torture. In 2020, for the first time since 1989, the city took a police torture case to trial, defending notorious Burge henchmen Byrne and Dignan in the Stanley Wrice case. The jury handed the city a resounding defeat — a $5.2 million verdict. After blustering that it would appeal, the city quietly settled last year for just over $6 million.

Since 2005, the city has now settled 19 cases for a total $101.25 million. When the $5.5 million in reparations and the $1.4 million obtained in the 1990s are added, the total awarded adds up to $108.15 million, with at least seven cases still pending.

State torture commission and court of claims ($7.9 million)

In 2009, the state of Illinois passed the Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission Act, thanks to the organizing of Black People Against Police Torture and state legislators Kwame Raoul and Art Turner. The TIRC Act provided for administrative review of Burge-era police torture cases and empowered the commission to send meritorious claims of torture back to the Cook County criminal courts for new hearings. The commission, whose scope has subsequently been expanded, has sent numerous cases back to the courts, and many survivors have been afforded new trials. To date, the TIRC has cost state taxpayers $4.5 million.

The state Court of Claims is tasked by law to award a legislatively determined amount to those Illinois prisoners who were wrongfully convicted and were subsequently determined to be innocent. To date, 16 Burge torture survivors who have received a judicially awarded certificate of innocence or an executive innocence pardon have received a combined $3.4 million from the Court of Claims for a total of 378.5 years of wrongful incarceration. This figure does not include the million of dollars expended to house these innocent men.

Seven pending police torture cases

The total expenditures are staggering. And the end is not in sight.

Seven Burge-era torture survivors are currently seeking damages in federal court — all but one of them have been declared innocent after decades in prison. To date, Lightfoot, the State’s Attorney’s Office and the Cook County Board have lawyered up, committing untold additional millions to continue defending the indefensible.

Three of the cases merit special mention. Robert Smith, James Gibson, and Jackie Wilson spent a collective 98 years behind bars and have been found to be innocent of the crimes for which they were convicted. Not only have they sued their alleged torturers and the prosecutors who allegedly collaborated with them, but they also have sued the city for its admitted pattern and practice of torture under Burge.

Read More

‘Who is James Gibson?’ Exonerated Chicago police torture survivor reflects on identity, faith, and reentry after 29 years in prison

Gibson, 54, spent nearly 30 years behind bars after he says he was beaten into confessing to two 1989 murders. In an essay, Gibson recounts how his wrongful conviction and long fight for freedom robbed him of his identity, and how he’s trying to move forward.

In Smith’s case, one of the defendants is Cline, who replaced Burge as the Area 2 crimes lieutenant in 1986 and later ascended to become the superintendent. According to Smith’s allegations, Cline did nothing to investigate or stop the pattern and practice of torture but rather perjured himself to cover for one of the detectives who physically abused Smith. Cline, now the executive director of the Chicago Police Memorial Foundation, has denied the allegations.

In the Gibson case, the city’s pinstripers have followed a well-worn path: They moved to bifurcate the pattern and practice claim from the underlying torture claims to avoid admitting in court what the city’s policymakers have repeatedly admitted publicly. The judge denied their motion and will now decide whether to grant summary judgment on the issue of whether there was a policy and practice of torture — a motion, supported by an amicus brief signed by 47 business and civic leaders, which I hope will hoist the city on its own policymakers’ petard.

In the Jackie Wilson case (Full disclosure: I am one of his lawyers), a parade of prosecutors — from the assistant state’s attorney who had been previously found by special prosecutors Egan and Boyle to have lied when he denied his involvement in the torture to the prosecutors who wrongfully prosecuted Wilson three separate times — are named as conspiring co-defendants. Several of these former prosecutors are now the subjects of another special prosecutor’s investigation into their alleged perjury and obstruction of justice. Wilson is not only armed with a certificate of innocence but also with detailed findings by the criminal court judge who ultimately dismissed his case that he was tortured as part of the pattern and practice at Area 2. So far, the city and county’s response, no doubt influenced by Cline and the Fraternal Order of Police, has been to double down with eight sets of private lawyers who are throwing all sorts of highly questionable arguments at the wall, including a frivolous challenge by one of the prosecutor’s lawyers to the TIRC’s right to refer meritorious cases to the criminal courts.

It is now 50 years since Burge and his crew tortured their first Black victims, yet the city and its mayor, aligned with the Fraternal Order of Police, and the county and its state’s attorney, aligned with old-guard prosecutors who reigned under Daley, Devine, and Anita Alvarez, continue to deny, obstruct, and spend taxpayer dollars in state and federal court in an unending and unconscionable effort to deny freedom and compensation to those torture survivors who so richly deserve some modicum of justice.

Until the political powers that be remove themselves from the wrong side of history, the Burge torture scandal will drag on, and the taxpayers will continue to involuntarily fund the torture deniers who are responsible for this shameful chapter of racist police and prosecutorial violence and cover-up.

Flint Taylor is a founding partner of the People’s Law Office in Chicago and has represented dozens of clients in torture and other police misconduct cases. He is the author of “The Torture Machine: Racism and Police Violence in Chicago.”