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Who tells their story? Advocating for the wrongfully convicted

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Prisoner

Sitting in the audience of Chicago’s crown jewel “Hamilton—the Musical,” after my highly anticipated yet extremely delayed opportunity to see the show for the first time, I could not help but think about Derrick Shields, my client. As a central theme of the musical is the never-ending battle between one’s dreams and the limited time allotted in our earthly dispensation, the audience observed one man’s battle to write his story in time.

“Who lives? Who dies? Who tells your story?” The cast sang unified for the final piece. As the other actors joined the stage for the curtain call, a roar of applause filled the CIBC Theatre. However, despite the excitement of the other theater-goers, I remained seated, glued to my seat with a numbing sadness from the realization of the similarities between Lin-Manuel Miranda’s depiction of Alexander Hamilton’s life and the lives of many people serving “time” in America’s prisons today. They wait suspended in time… waiting… just waiting for anyone to tell their story of innocence, false confessions, and the resulting wrongful conviction.

My client Derrick Shields, like Hamilton, begged for countless people to listen to his story before our clinic took on his case. Derrick was wrongfully imprisoned for nearly 17 years and was only recently granted parole. Not only was/is his life placed on hold, his voice was silenced, and he was robbed of the ability to paint his own narrative and leave a legacy to be proud of, which consists of simply not being labeled for a crime he did not commit.

Derrick has always had more concern for being extricated from the assault on his morale and the emotional torture associated with wrongful convictions than he had for being released from prison. He wants people to hear his story of innocence and learn about the devastation faced by victims of wrongful convictions.

At the age of 16, Derrick was sentenced to life without parole for first-degree murder. Despite his clear alibi and the prevailing evidence against other suspects, police would use Derrick’s false confession to close the books on the three-year-old murder investigation of a woman from of one of the town’s most prominent families.

During an unrelated investigation, Derrick said police found a note with rap lyrics in the Shields home that they sequestered as evidence of a crime. After years of a fruitless investigation, the police would bring 14-year-old Derrick in for questioning and eventually charge him with murder.

At 14, Derrick confessed to a crime that he did not commit. During his interrogation, Derrick said law enforcement threatened to pin the murder on his brother, who was not even involved in the matter. Derrick said police promised to send his brother to an adult penitentiary for the murder if Derrick did not admit to the crime. The police promised leniency, saying he would only receive a short sentence in a juvenile detention center and probation if he immediately confessed. Not knowing at the time of the interrogation that his brother was not even a suspect and that this was likely just a deceptive tactic, Derrick believed the policemen and falsely confessed.

Unable to consult with a lawyer or a parent, after police ignored his repeated requests for his father, Derrick signed the false confession that would rob him of years of his life. In 2001, Derrick was convicted and ultimately endured 17 years behind bars. He would spend the rest of his teenage years and early adulthood in prison; Derrick entered prison as a 16-year-old boy and wouldn’t walk out until he was a 33-year old man.

Although Derrick is out of jail, the work is not finished.  Being granted parole allows his freedom from prison. It does not free Derrick of his wrongful conviction and does not acknowledge his story of innocence that was on the brink of being heard by the court when he was granted parole earlier this year.

Derrick is now able to tell his own story outside of the prison walls. While we continue to fight for his innocence and for the many people like him who have been imprisoned as a result of wrongful convictions, Derrick can try to fulfill his dreams and build a legacy that he can be proud of in the years to come.

Joining Northwestern’s Bluhm Legal Clinic Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth, I admit that I was somewhat skeptical about many of the narratives surrounding false confessions and wrongful convictions. Thinking they were the result of mere procedural errors or mistakes, I could not imagine the knowing perpetuation of grave injustice and the blatant disregard for liberty that leads to many wrongful convictions. I was unable to understand the unyielding systemic pressures on the agents of our government and unable to understand the manner in which these pressures allow—and sometimes even encourage—these agents to “solve” crimes by any means necessary.

Through time, these pressures have only created a justice system that encourages governmental agents to employ discriminatory beliefs to draw a line between those that we believe should be a part of society versus those we are OK with giving the life-destroying sentences as societal scapegoats for unsolved wrongs.

As a civilized and humane society, we must prevent stories like Derrick’s by refusing to turn a blind eye to the systemic injustices that serve as the foundation of wrongful convictions. Together, we must ensure that “life liberty and the pursuit of happiness” is not used as a mere cliché for our social media posts, but instead serves as one of our country’s central values.

As the cast of “Hamilton” joined hands and walks upstage for the closing of the show, I again thought of Derrick and of the many people who long for their stories of innocence to be heard. As the cast raised their hands clasped together in triumph after a successful show, I made my own internal declaration to never again turn away from blatant injustice and to always fight for the rights of the innocent until their truths allow them the freedom that they deserve.

Erika Lessane Erika Lessane is a 2L at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law. Although experienced in health law, she has a strong interest in social justice related causes. She currently serves as a student attorney in the Northwestern Bluhm Legal Clinic’s Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth (CWC-Y). She is the 2018-2019 National Delegate of Programming for the Law Student Division.