Due to the successful pro bono representation by Kirkland & Ellis LLP and the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law, prosecutors from the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office have agreed today to a new trial for three men convicted in a 1995 double murder at a used car lot on the southwest side of Chicago.
Kirkland litigation partners Justin Barker and Tim Knapp have been representing Charles Johnson, one of the three men convicted of this crime, for over eight years. New fingerprint evidence which excluded Johnson, Larod Styles, and Lashawn Ezell and which matched to a third party persuaded prosecutors to reach this extraordinary decision. Johnson and Styles have served 20 years of their mandatory life without parole sentences. Ezell has already completed his 20-year sentence for an armed robbery in connection with the homicides.
In 2008, professors at the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law (CWCY), which receives thousands of letters from inmates each year, selected Johnson’s case. Two of the professors, Steven Drizin and Joshua Tepfer, who is now with the Exoneration Project at University of Chicago Law School, asked Kirkland to partner with them in representing Johnson.
After years of investigation and motion practice seeking additional fingerprint testing, the team uncovered numerous new matches from fingerprints left at the scene of the crime to previously unidentified convicted felons with no connection to Johnson. One of these individuals left five prints at two different crime scenes, including on the adhesive side of a marketing sticker the perpetrators ripped from a car they stole to flee the scene.
Based on this new evidence, Kirkland and CWCY filed two post-conviction petitions on behalf of Johnson, including an innocence petition in 2010.
In 2013, the First District Appellate Court held that Johnson had “made a substantial showing of an actual innocence claim” based on the new fingerprint testing and ordered an evidentiary hearing. With today’s decision by prosecutors to vacate the convictions, that hearing is no longer necessary.
Barker and Knapp estimate that Kirkland devoted more than 3,300 hours over the last eight-and-a-half years to the case – with about 280 hours this year alone.
“We knew Charles was innocent,” said Barker, who has worked on the case for the past eight-and-a-half years. “We told him unequivocally that our team believed in him and would never rest until he was free. Given the new evidence of actual innocence, we are confident that we will prevail if this case goes to a new trial.”
“This is a great day for Charles, his family, and his friends,” said Knapp, who started working on the case in 2008 as a summer associate at Kirkland. “But it is also a reminder that our criminal justice system still reaches the wrong result too often, and when it does the consequences are devastating.”
The case is State v. Charles Johnson.
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About Kirkland’s Pro Bono Work
Kirkland is committed to providing legal services without charge to those who cannot afford counsel, with the goals of improving lives, bettering communities and deepening our attorneys’ professional experience. Kirkland attorneys at all levels pursue pro bono matters dealing with a variety of issues such as immigration, disability rights, civil rights, death penalty cases and criminal appeals, guardianship, veterans’ benefits, and the representation of nonprofit organizations, among other areas. In 2015, Kirkland attorneys devoted more than 103,000 hours of free legal service to pro bono clients. Learn more about Kirkland’s commitment to pro bono at www.kirkland.com/probono.