BY: The Exoneration Project

Exonerating Justin: reflections on an uncomplicated life

by Josh Tepfer

EP Attorney

 

I’ve been thinking a lot about my Grandfather recently, which is a little odd given that he died 25 years ago when I was 21 years old. He lived in New York while I grew up in Chicago. So I saw him a few times a year at most.

My memories of him are pretty uncomplicated—he really liked to play golf, and he liked to watch golf on television. When I would visit, we would do both together. He would take me to the golf club where he spent his weekends. Grandpa was jovial and talkative at the club. He was also flat out adored. I cannot begin to count the times where random people at the club would come up to me and say something to the effect of—“your grandfather, he is just a wonderful guy. Just the best.” These comments were just as likely to come from the rich members playing golf, or from workers who were carrying or cleaning the clubs.

At home, Grandpa was quiet, although perhaps equally adored. He was a small man in stature, and my Grandmother (his wife), was even smaller. She, too, was pretty much well-liked by everyone. They were like this little mini, elderly couple that everyone just seemed to find adorable.

And they had their routine and seemed to get along wonderfully. Grandpa would eat the same breakfast cereal every morning (he’d use apple juice instead of milk…strange). He did the crosswords quietly in the morning in his robe as he would eat. They smiled at each other, talked of fairly monotonous things, and just seemed to share a mutual respect and happiness with each other. Perhaps he doted on her a little, but not in an over the top way.

All of this, of course, is likely a caricature—simple memories created through the lens of a child and teenager of a man two generations older that I saw a few times a year. I mean, how well could I have really known him? And, in fact, I didn’t know him at all…period… during the first 60 years or so of his life. Who knows what he was like then? People generally aren’t uncomplicated. I’m sure my memories of him are influenced by the fact that, like many of us, my relationships with the other adult males in my life has been…. Well, more complicated.

I have golfed very, very little in the last 25 years since he died. But in the last few months, I’ve done it twice. And I really enjoy it. I want to do it more. Meanwhile, my 10 year old son has eaten the same breakfast every morning (in his robe) for probably four years—a toasted (Lego-type, but usually the off brand) blueberry waffle with peanut butter and syrup on it (a tiny bit strange as well). And just recently, he has started doing a crossword (or a word search) quietly while he eats. So, I guess these facts answer the question as to why I’ve been thinking about my grandfather a lot recently.

This morning, my client Justin Black was exonerated of a murder he didn’t commit. He spent 11 years in prison. He was released in 2018 on parole because the parole board recognized the DNA likely proved him innocent so he should wait for court justice outside prison walls. A year later, a judge did vacate his conviction. He was given a recognizance bond. For two years he’s been pending a murder retrial as the prosecutor grappled with the case. The State dropped the charges this morning, finally exonerating him.

I’m not sure I’ve ever worked harder on a case. It was a really hard case for a lot of reasons. Just a ton of difficult legal and factual issues. I’m really proud.

I also really, really like Justin. He is quiet and kind. He’s also over the top respectful and deferential to me. When he got out, he moved to a very small town out west. He got a job at a store and worked his way up to a managerial position. He got married to a very nice woman. They had a baby girl just weeks ago.

For the last many months, all Justin ever wanted to talk about with me was his impending baby and his wife’s pregnancy. He texted me updates about her dilation as she was in labor. And now he is on a weeks’ long paternity leave from work to care for his baby girl.

When I told Justin over the phone what was going to happen on Tuesday, he warned me that he is going to want to give me a big hug after it happened.

So while the actual case and litigation was really complicated, my relationship with Justin was the opposite—totally uncomplicated. As is my impression of him—an uncomplicated, kind man. I’m sure this, too, is a caricature—an impression of my client through the lens as his attorney. We all have layers.

(If you’ve read this far, you may be asking yourself, at this point, is Josh really going to try and tie his uncomplicated relationship with his grandfather to his uncomplicated relationship with his innocent client? Well, yes, I am, and here it goes….)

As Justin now goes on with his life with this murder charge behind him—here is my wish to him. I wish him a long life, with all the ups and downs we all experience. And I wish that one day, his new daughter’s children will think fondly back of their grandfather, Justin Black, as an uncomplicated, kind figure in their lives when they grew up.

 

Justin Black, from left, gives EP attorney Josh Tepfer the long-awaited “big hug” on October 5, 2021. After 11 years incarcerated and countless legal battles out of prison, Black was exonerated today, along with two of his co-defendants.

 

 

Featured image: Co-counsel Lonnie Simmons, from left, Justin Black, and EP attorney Josh Tepfer stand outside the courtroom after Black is exonerated on October 5, 2021.