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Kirkland & Ellis Pro Bono Client: Charles Johnson

In 1995 Charles Johnson was convicted, along with three other men, for a double murder at a used-car dealership in Chicago, a crime he did not commit. Despite the absence of any physical or forensic evidence linking him to the crime, he served 20 years of a mandatory life sentence.

In 2008, two professors who were then at the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law (CWC) asked Kirkland & Ellis to partner with them in representing Johnson – selecting his case from the thousands of letters they receive from inmates annually.

After years of investigation and motion practice seeking additional fingerprint testing, the legal 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 multiple prints at the crime scene as well as on a marketing sticker the perpetrators ripped from a car they stole to flee the scene. The cars were driven five miles from the crime scene and hidden in an alley less than one block away from where the newly discovered suspect lived.

Johnson’s team also tracked down previously missing witnesses, who revealed a motive for the crime that was far more consistent with the details of the crime than the motive the state had argued at trial.

Based on this new evidence, Kirkland and CWC 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. On July 11, 2016, the Illinois Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office agreed to a new trial for Johnson and his co-defendants and vacated his conviction. Johnson was released from prison on September 26, 2016.

In February 2017, the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office dismissed all charges against all four men. The “Marquette Park 4” entered prison as teenagers and spent a collective 70 years behind bars.

Kirkland estimates that the firm devoted more than 3,300 hours over eight-and-a-half years to securing Johnson’s exoneration and freedom.