Attorney Tara Thompson
For the past two weeks I’ve been navigating some unfamiliar professional territory, representing a criminal defendant at trial. Although I am no stranger to trials and criminal procedure, this experience was particularly nerve-wracking. In the end it gave me a new perspective about post-conviction litigation and how our clients get to where they are by the time we typically meet them. It reminded me of the challenges our system poses for anyone, even the relatively privileged, to receive a fair trial.
As anyone who follows the work of our Project knows, we are not a direct criminal representation project. We do not represent criminal defendants at trial unless one of our post-conviction clients has their conviction overturned and is granted a new trial. Prior to Curtis Lovelace contacting us, we had never before accepted a client to represent them at trial. Curt’s case, though, was different. Curtis Lovelace’s then-wife Cory Lovelace died at home, suddenly, in 2006. For eight years, no one believed her death to be a homicide, until 2014 when Curt was arrested and charged with his wife’s death. In 2015, at a trial in Quincy, Illinois, a jury deadlocked and could not reach a verdict, and the State decided to try him again.
We can only speculate what would have happened to Curt had our project not become involved in his case, but his case is a sobering reminder to me just how stacked the criminal justice system can be against defendants. Curt ultimately presented his case to an attentive jury who gave up two weeks of their lives to hear the evidence and render a verdict. But candidly, in some ways he was a relatively advantaged criminal defendant. He had a strong group of friends and family behind him. He had people all over the United States who stepped in to prevent an injustice from occurring. In a case where science was critical, he benefited from top pathology experts who could explain his defense to the jury. He had all the advantages that many of our wrongfully convicted clients never have, and yet, he was caught up in the system just like everyone else.
All of our cases involve thoughtful decision-making, but at trial, decisions sometimes have to be made instantaneously. Defense counsel has to know the case inside and out in order to make the right calls in a time crunch.
Before Curt’s trial, I read somewhere that there is no harder case for an attorney than when you represent an innocent person. That’s a feeling I’ve had over and over again doing this work – there’s no greater responsibility than knowing that a wrongfully-convicted innocent person is depending on you to help them receive justice. I had that same feeling throughout Curt’s trial – defending the innocent is an immense responsibility. Making sure as an attorney that you do your job at trial and aren’t the reason that someone is convicted for a crime they didn’t commit adds a level of pressure and stress to trial work that I cannot fully describe. Having experienced that even once gives me the greatest respect for defense attorneys who do this work all the time, and do it in a dedicated way for every client they represent. Hence my relief at Curt being acquitted – when innocent people are convicted, the system has failed. I’m grateful Curt didn’t join that group. It hurts me to even have a glimpse of everything he and his family had to endure during this experience. It hurts me having that glimpse for all of our EP clients. And Curt’s trial has motivated me to keep going out and seeking these kinds of outcomes for the other people we represent who were not as fortunate as Curt was.