By Tyler Cox
“So do you want to lock people up or get people out?”
That question has come up in one form or another in almost every job interview I’ve had since college. It’s usually proceeded by a glance at my resume and followed by a hearty laugh like it was the first time I’d ever heard it. It wasn’t. And it was a question I had struggled with once upon a time. The explanation seemed like it would cause more trouble than it was worth, so I usually just pretended to laugh it off and moved on to hypothesizing as to why manhole covers are round. In reality, the answer has been made easier through my (relatively few) years of experience with the criminal justice system and my interactions with the men and women that have lived and worked in it.
The first internship I was ever lucky enough to stumble into was with the Anoka County Attorney’s Office, in Anoka, Minnesota during college. After spending my whole life thinking I wanted to be a doctor, I changed my career path when I found out chemistry wasn’t as exciting as Breaking Bad made it out to be. I applied for the internship as way of helping me figure out if I could actually do this whole law thing. I spent the summer in Anoka and fell in love with being a criminal prosecutor. I read every case I could get my hands on. At first, it was simply like reading the latest Grisham novel: the names and faces meant nothing to me beyond the story they told.
But as the summer wore on, I found myself reading about some of the worst things one person could do to another. Suddenly it meant something. Working with victims and witnesses in preparation for trials, I quickly appreciated the devastation that those names and faces in the files could wreak on the lives of families, friends, and complete strangers. I also realized the sense of relief, however small, that these victims and their families felt after finally seeing the perpetrator come to justice. I naively and selfishly believed that anyone who set foot in the courtroom and sat at the defendant’s table had done something to get there, and were getting what they deserved. I wanted to be a prosecutor to make sure they never had a chance to turn another person into a victim.
When I returned to the University of Wisconsin – Madison, I had the privilege of hearing Professor Keith Findley speak. For those unfamiliar, Professor Findley is director and co-founder of the Wisconsin Innocence Project, which seeks to exonerate those who have been wrongly convicted. Listening to Professor Findley speak about exonerees such as Chris Ochoa, who served 13 years in Texas prison after being wrongfully convicted of rape and murder, I was forced to reevaluate everything I was sure I knew about the criminal justice system. Maybe it was possible, after all, to make it through arrest, trial and sentencing for a crime you never committed. Needless to say I was a bit rattled.
Soon after, a volunteer position opened up as a case intake assistant with the Wisconsin Innocence Project, and I jumped at the chance. Once again I found myself reading case after case until I couldn’t see straight. While many of the cases were not eligible to even be considered by the Project, let alone litigated, I was enthralled with the stories of these men and women behind bars and their claims of innocence. I was equally impressed with the law students, attorneys, and professors that devoted countless hours to investigating and considering the plausibility of these claims, all in the name of justice and fairness. After I graduated from Wisconsin and left the Project, one thing was abundantly clear: things weren’t as black and white as I had previously thought.
Deciding that I indeed had a calling as an attorney, I began my legal education at the Loyola University Chicago School of Law. I soon learned about one of Loyola’s legal clinics, Life After Innocence, and decided that I wanted to be a part of it. It wasn’t long before I got the chance to meet many of the exonerees that LAI advocates for. Admittedly, after my time reading cases similar to theirs at the Innocence Project, I was a little anxious before the first meeting. After all that they had been through, who could blame these men and women for being aloof, distant, and guarded, especially with a bunch of law school kids.
I couldn’t have been more wrong. They were engaging, funny, smart, open, and most importantly: human. Since the first meeting, I have learned so much from Mike (pictured above), James, Juan, and Jacques, among others. I’ve learned what it’s like to suddenly find yourself back in the community that wrongly put you away so many years ago without much of a helping hand. I’ve learned that hate, anger, and resentment can only get a person so far before those emotions start to hurt only the one expressing them. The most practical lesson I’ve learned from these incredible people at LAI is that being a prosecutor comes with more responsibility than just “putting guys away.” A prosecutor has the all-important, life-changing task of making absolutely sure he is putting the RIGHT guys away.
My dream of being a prosecutor is still very much alive and well. In fact, I am currently working as a law clerk in the Criminal Appeals division of the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office—the same office that prosecuted many of the exonerees I work with at Life After Innocence. Surprisingly, the news of this position inspired less animosity than encouragement amongst the exonerees. After sheepishly telling Juan where I was clerking for the semester, he was quick to respond with his congratulations. He must have noticed the confused look on my face, because he soon clarified: “We need people like you, people who know that innocent people are in prison, to fight for the ones that are in there and put the ones in there that should be in there.” So in the end it’s not necessarily about putting people into prison or freeing them from prison. In my view, if a man is guilty beyond any doubt, he should face the consequences of his actions. Conversely, a man should never suffer the repercussions of an act he never committed.
A prosecutor should ensure that guilty men do not slip through the holes in the justice system by avoiding punishment, and that innocent men do not slip through the holes by having no advocates to ensure that they remain free. In case you were wondering, manhole covers are round so that they don’t slip through the holes in the street. Who would have thought?