Imagine that you've been convicted of a crime that you did not commit, and face a life sentence in prison--or one on death row. It sounds like a nightmarish thriller plot, but such miscarriages of justice do happen, and with shocking regularity. Tragically (but not coincidentally) they happen most frequently to the poor, uneducated, and disenfranchised in our societyï¿½those least able to defend themselves.
That's where Rob Warden comes in. Formerly an award-winning journalist whose investigative work exposed the wrongful convictions of innocent people (including six individuals who had been sentenced to death), Warden is now a courtroom crusader, anti-death penalty advocate, and the executive director for the Center on Wrongful Convictions at the Northwestern University School of Law.
There, Warden fights not only to overturn individual cases of legal incompetence and corruption but also to expose the systemic problems that unfairly tip the scales of justice. His commitment is to correct those aspects of our criminal justice system that do an injustice to us all.
The story I am about to tell brings to mind a novel I first read as a teenager--Harold Bell Wright's The Shepherd of the Hills, set in the Ozarks, where I grew up. "In the hills of life," the novel begins, "there are two trails. One lies along the higher sunlit fields where those who journey see far, and the light lingers even when the sun is down; and one leads to the lower ground, where those who travel, as they go, look always over their shoulders with eyes of dread, and gloomy shadows gather long before the day is done."
My story is that of a young prosecutor, an assistant Illinois attorney general named Mary Brigid Kenney, who in the early 1990s found her way to the higher sunlit fields, while her superiors, one after another, chose the trail leading to the lower ground. She stood alone in the face of intense pressure to perpetuate a horrible injustice in an emotion-charged case, with the life of an innocent man hanging in the balance.
Born in 1962, Mary grew up in a tranquil Chicago suburb near the line separating the state's two largest counties, Cook and DuPage. In her youth, she had an affinity for Nancy Drew and Agatha Christie, and dreamt of a career as a prosecutor. She realized this dream when she was hired by the Cook County State Attorney's Office after graduating from law school in 1989. Two years later she jumped at an opportunity to move to the Illinois Attorney General's Office, where she would be defending convictions on appeal in the higher courts--perhaps even the Supreme Court of the United States.
Indeed, her first assignment at the Attorney General's Office had the potential to carry her into the stratosphere. The case was known as People v. Cruz. Although the crime that gave rise to it had occurred more than eight years earlier, in 1983, Mary recalled it vividly. It had been terrible--the rape and murder of a ten-year-old girl in DuPage County.
In 1985, Rolando Cruz had been convicted and sentenced to death for the crime. The conviction rested on dubious testimony by DuPage County authorities who swore that Cruz had told them he had a dream about the crime--a dream that the prosecution said amounted to a confession. Cruz's jury accepted that, but eight months later a serial killer named Brian Dugan confessed that he alone had committed the crime. Unlike Cruz's purported dream, Dugan's confession seemed ironclad--rich in detail that only the killer could have known.
By all rights, Cruz should have been exonerated at that point, but other forces seem to have been at work. His exoneration would surely have been embarrassing for the authorities involved in the case, including the state's attorney--who had political aspirations. The conviction stood, despite Dugan's confession.
However, Cruz won a new trial on appeal as a result of judicial error in the original trial. Again he was convicted and sentenced to death. Again, he appealed the conviction.
It was at this point that Mary Brigid Kenney was assigned to the case. She believed strongly in the integrity of law enforcement and assumed that any allegations of police and prosecutorial misconduct swirling around this case were either unfounded or greatly exaggerated. "I thought nothing so bad could happen in our justice system," she would reflect later. "This is the United States. We have a Bill of Rights."
Yet after Mary read the voluminous record of the case, it was apparent to her that an innocent man had been railroaded onto death row. She turned to her colleagues for advice, but found no comfort there. The only suggestion was to write a weak brief--and hope for the best. But she could not abide by that. "I knew it was terribly wrong," she recalled recently. "I started to wonder what kind of people I was working with."
She wrote a memo urging the attorney general to acknowledge error in the case, paving the way for Cruz to get yet another trial, but to no avail. Mary concluded she had no choice but to abandon the career to which she had so long aspired.
"I cannot sit idly by as this office continues to pursue the unjust prosecution of Rolando Cruz," she wrote in an impassioned letter of resignation, emphasizing that the case had been "infected with many instances of prosecutorial misconduct."
The appeal was assigned to another lawyer in the office and nine months later the Illinois Supreme Court, to Mary's great consternation, affirmed the conviction. But the story still wasn't over, thanks in large part to Mary. As a result of Mary's courageous stance, intense attention was now focused on Cruz's case, both from the media and from the community. The deans of six Illinois law schools and a group of prominent former prosecutors filed friend-of-the-court briefs in support of a rehearing for Cruz. In 1994, the Supreme Court bowed to the pressure and reversed the conviction, awarding Cruz yet another trial--his third.
As the trial approached in 1995, DNA technology had advanced sufficiently to link Dugan--and Dugan alone--to the crime. The trial commenced nonetheless.
The trial ended abruptly, however, when a DuPage County sheriff's lieutenant admitted on the stand that officers who claimed to have informed him of the dream statement at the time Cruz supposedly made it could not in fact have informed him, because he was on vacation. An incredulous judge acquitted Cruz, removing him from legal jeopardy after eleven years, thirty-four weeks, and four days behind bars for a crime he did not commit. In 2002, Cruz received a gubernatorial pardon based on innocence.
It should be noted that heroes like Mary Brigid Kenney are rare in positions of authority in the criminal justice system. In the hundreds of wrongful conviction cases I have investigated over the last quarter century, I have seen official after official with the opportunity to do the right thing, but who chose a lower road instead. Were that not the case, if integrity and independence were the rule rather than the exception--Mary Brigid Kenney would be ordinary, and I would not be telling her story.
As much as she might prefer it otherwise, however, she is extraordinary and deserves the highest accolade for her courageous stand in the Cruz case, a reminder to prosecutors everywhere that their responsibility is not to win or defend convictions but to do justice.
After leaving the Attorney General's Office, Mary began a rewarding career championing the legal interests of abused and neglected minors and disabled adults. Like the heroine in Harold Bell Wright's novel, she found the light lingering long after the sun had set.
Page created on 8/31/2006 12:00:00 AM
Last edited 8/28/2018 2:12:20 AM
The beliefs, viewpoints and opinions expressed in this hero submission on the website are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the beliefs, viewpoints and opinions of The MY HERO Project and its staff.
Center on Wrongful Convictions
- is dedicated to identifying and rectifying wrongful convictions and other serious miscarriages of justice. The Center has three components: representation, research, and community services. Rob Warden serves as its Executive Director.
Copyright 2005 by The My Hero Project
MY HERO thanks Rob Warden for contributing this essay to My Hero: Extraordinary People on the Heroes Who Inspire Them.
Thanks to Free Press for reprint rights of the above material.