Remembering Jane Raley, Advocate for the Innocent

She was the consummate professional, a criminal defense lawyer who was not afraid to cry with her clients. She could also laugh, cracking up her colleagues with salty comments about some of the bad actors in the wrongful conviction cases she pursued.
01/07/2015 12:43 pm ET Updated Mar 09, 2015

She was the consummate professional, a criminal defense lawyer who was not afraid to cry with her clients. She could also laugh, cracking up her colleagues with salty comments about some of the bad actors in the wrongful conviction cases she pursued.

She was "so passionate for her causes in court that a couple of times, she might have been told by a judge to tone it down a little bit," remembers a colleague; yet a prosecutor on the other side of several of her cases describes her as unfailingly courteous and pleasant.

She could sing and play the piano with her beloved children; she could also trudge through warehouses, doggedly digging through boxes, till she found the piece of evidence she needed to help the innocent person she was trying to get out of prison.

Her name was Jane Raley. She was an attorney with the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law in Chicago. She helped free 11 innocent men and women wrongfully convicted of the crimes with which they were charged. Eleven lives, saved.

On Christmas Day, she died much too young, of cancer. She leaves a husband, a son in college and a daughter in high school, and a world that needed -- and needs -- her extraordinary blend of tenacity and humanity.

Jane Raley started at the Center at the same time as Karen Daniel, job-sharing so that each of them could stay home with their young children. Raley and Daniel rose to become co-directors of the Center, which has, in its 15-year existence, freed an astonishing 27 innocent people convicted of crimes they did not commit.

Daniel remembers her colleague Raley as someone who was untiring in the long slog toward justice for her clients. "She would go back and reread things, and come in and say, 'I just had this new idea.'"

At the same time, Daniel said, Raley "had a natural enthusiasm about everything, If you had good news to share, you wanted to share it with Jane, because she would jump up and shout, 'That's wonderful!'"

Raley brought that same emotion to her work, in the best way possible, Daniel said. "She was appropriate in court, but her emotion would come through. Everyone there knew that she was passionate about her cases."

Outside of court, Daniel said, Raley was "very free with her emotions, with the families of her clients, with her students. She taught them that, as a lawyer, it is okay to feel things. You can be both a great lawyer, which she was, and also a feeling human being."

Raley often had to deliver bad news to her clients and their families. "So many rounds of losses," Daniel recalls. "She could somehow cry with them and still be professional with them."

Raley combined that professionalism and passion in her advocacy, said Kurt Smitko, Deputy Supervisor of Special Litigation for the Office of the Cook County States Attorney, who worked opposite Raley on several cases. "She really believed in her clients and fought hard for them. She understood what we do as prosecutors and believed in what she was doing, too. These kinds of cases can be contentious, but I've never seen her angry, never seen her lose her cool."

Smitko first met Raley when she wanted to look at impounded evidence in a case she was investigating. They walked through a warehouse looking through boxes, Raley's Northwestern students in tow. "She found something she wanted, a lineup photo," Smitko remembers. "She got really excited about seeing it and wanted me to share in her enthusiasm," he said, laughing ruefully. "I will miss her."

One of Raley's students, Marta Malko, in her third year at Northwestern, remembers Raley as a figure both beloved and revered. "When another student and I would go to Stateville {Correctional Center}, we would always be sent back with a long list of messages for Jane from prisoners, some of whom she didn't even represent. Her reputation really preceded her. Everyone knew what a wonderful person and fierce advocate she was."

In Raley's office at Northwestern, Karen Daniel recently found a large, hand-made get well card to Raley sent by a client at Stateville. "He got all these people to sign it, other prisoners. Most of them didn't know her, but they knew of her," Daniel recalled. The inmates wrote so many messages that they ran out of space, and had to add extra sheets of paper to the card.

"A lot of them called her 'Saint Jane.' It was a really beautiful outpouring of all that she meant to people who were reviled and given up on. She was seen as this beacon. She brought so much hope to people in dark places."