Law students help free wrongfully accused

Evidence brought by the Law School’s Exoneration Project has established the innocence—and secured the release—of at least one wrongly convicted man.

Twenty years after the rape and murder of a young Illinois teenager led to the convictions of five minors, evidence brought by the Law School’s Exoneration Project has established the innocence—and secured the release—of at least one.

James Harden, of Dixmoor, IL, walked free last Thursday after wrongly spending 20 years in prison, his conviction vacated by strong DNA evidence indicating his innocence. Law students in the Project had been working on the case since 2008, after Harden’s father, who passed away while Harden was in prison, contacted them for help.

Photo: Courtesy of The Exoneration Project
From left to right, Mort Smith, Tara Thompson, Craig Cooley, James Harden, Eileen Ho, and Jenni James walk away from the courthouse after the exoneration of client James Harden.


“Cases like this teach us that wrong convictions do happen in the U.S.,” Thompson said. “Mr. Harden’s conviction shows us that there are more flaws in the justice system than we notice or that we’d like to admit.”

Harden’s case was one of the first undertaken by the Project, one of four Law School clinics that provide pro bono legal aid in a number of areas, according to Tara Thompson (J.D. ’03), a staff attorney at the clinic and a lecturer at the Law School.

Students in the Exoneration Project directed much of their energy toward refuting the incorrect DNA analysis that wrongly established Harden’s guilt, said third-year law student Eileen Ho, who has been working on the case for a year. It was the testimony of two of Harden’s co-defendants that sealed his conviction, Ho said, even though DNA evidence found at the murder scene did not match any of the defendants.

“In 1995, DNA was just starting to get noticed. It was really the O.J. Simpson trial that brought DNA evidence to the attention of the American public. It was still pretty new,” Thompson said.

Investigators found that semen in victim Cateresa Matthews’ body did not match any of the five men convicted for her rape and murder, including Harden. However, the Illinois State Attorney’s Office reasoned that the semen could have belonged to Matthews’ boyfriend, and that the failure to match Harden did not necessarily exonerate him.

Thompson said that law students played a major part in litigating, researching, and developing strategies in the case. The law students were able to trace the original semen sample to the Dixmoor Police Department’s evidence storage facilities, despite a year of police insistence that the sample had been lost.

Students used the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS), a FBI database of criminal gene profiles, to match the DNA in the semen sample with Willie Randolph, a convicted rapist who was 33 at the time of the crime and had just served a 20-year sentence for robbery. Police apprehended Randolph in April.

“The State fought us at first, using the same reasons as last time,” Ho said. “It’s amazing how long it takes. It doesn’t take much to make a mistake, but the process for correcting that mistake is torturous.”

Harden’s release came as a surprise, according to Thompson, though it was the third conviction the state has vacated based on the project’s evidence. Harden and the project team were in court for the hearing last Thursday when the state announced it would drop the case.

“I’m grateful that the state could acknowledge the mistake,” Thompson said.

Though Harden has been released, his case is not yet over; the project will begin to pursue Illinois’ maximum statutory compensation. State law rules that for wrongful sentences longer than 14 years, the maximum compensation is $199,150, adjusted for any increase in annual cost of living, plus legal fees.

“Everyone has been congratulating us and we’re happy—but there is still so much more work to do,” Ho said. “When I first saw him sitting in prison, I spent the next two days crying. He’s spent the years in prison when other people are figuring out their futures. He was released with nothing. He has very little now. He wants to get his GED now.”

Two other defendants, Jonathan Barr and Robert Taylor, were released in cooperation with the Innocence Project and the Center on Wrongful Conviction of Youth, who respectively represent Barr and Taylor.

Since its inception in 2007, the Exoneration Project has resolved three cases, and has seven cases pending.

“The clinic has taught the value of pro bono work. When [Harden] was released, the look on his face, how he was completely floored; he’s crying—you dream of that moment as a lawyer. That type of high is incredible. It’s been a wild educational experience,” Ho said.

  • Thelma Wright

    This is a remarkable story & I applaud the team that put forth the effort and endurance to free the wrongfully accused who fall victim to our imperfect justice system.

    Great job & I forward to hearing/reading more!!!

    • Glenn

      is there a way to contact them for assistance?


      my brother was wrongly accused. of rape. not only that but i believe we have evidence stating that they took sperm from him 10 later when they arrested him to use because the old samples were molded also. the person she originally decried was the total opposite of my brother please help us. we are a poor family and no one will help.
      my moms number is 323-245-3111 and name Frances tucker and my number is 661-434-3394 and name nacola richards. thank you

  • doug dysinger

    my son adam was accused of a crime and spent 81 days in county jail. This was a case of misidenification. The photo used to id my son was 5 years old. At the scene of the crime there was a shirt and a shoe left due to a physical confrontation. This later provided DNA which cleared him. This was the only evidence, there was not one other thing that pointed at him other than the victim. He pointed at the wrong person and it was costly. Is there any type of recourse? He lost out on an opportunity for a job, he lost his car. This victims story at the prelim. was different from the police report, oh he was so certain and so wrong. Now he don’t even show up for the court dates for the guy who did it. There is no resemblence, It makes no sense. The county sheriff dept. was a disgrace, they left important info. from the report, such as the k-9. They could have cared less if they had the right person. The persons DNA was on file w/the michigan crime lab. The person was 3 hours away. There was no investigation, the crime lab did the job. The victim was angry and suspicious and a finger pointer and he was wrong. I want to file suit for recovery. Is there any help? Thank You

  • My brother has not been sentenced but is facing 4 years for something he didnt do. There is no evidence. Human life is at risk of serving a sentence for a person word. I guess everyone is at risk. Where is justice. I am desperate for my brother. Is an attorney needed…. I dont know. HELP!!!