Karen Daniel: A tragic end to an extraordinary life and career

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When Karen Daniel graduated from Harvard Law School in 1981, she could have taken any number of lucrative positions, but she took what some of her classmates would have regarded as a vow of poverty — public interest, serving first as an attorney at the Illinois Office of the State Appellate Defender and then as a staff attorney and clinical professor at the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law.

At the Center on Wrongful Convictions, she worked closely with her good friend and colleague, the late Jane Raley. They opened the eyes of a generation of law students to the failures of the criminal justice system, teaching them how to go about exonerating the wrongfully convicted — a field Karen and Jane pioneered.

Together they were instrumental in the exonerations of well over a score of innocent men and women during their all-too short careers, both of which ended in monumental tragedy: Karen was killed on Thursday  — struck by a car while walking her dog on Pleasant Street near her home in Oak Park. Her death followed by five years and a day the death of Jane from cancer.

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I met Karen 17 years ago when we worked together on the case of an innocent mother and Indiana University Ph.D candidate named Julie Rea, who had been convicted of the murder of her son in Illinois. I was a new volunteer attorney at the Center on Wrongful Convictions with no background in criminal law, but Karen took me under her wing. We spent the next few years working on Julie’s case. Other members of the team were Jeff Urdangen, Ron Safer, Stephanie Horten, and David Lieber. Without exception, we regarded Julie’s acquittal as a highpoint in all our careers—one of the most important things we could expect to do in life

Karen and I worked on a number of cases together, but another one that was very close to our hearts was the Daniel Taylor case, which was brought to our attention by Chicago Tribune reporters Steve Mills and Maurice Possley. Daniel was a juvenile when he was arrested and wrongfully convicted of murder, even though there was evidence he was in lock-up on a disorderly conduct at the time of the crime.

When we won Daniel’s exoneration and he walked free, I found someone willing to let him use an apartment rent free. Karen and I rented a van, which she drove to move him into his new apartment. Karen joked that it was rare for clients to have attorneys who would move furniture for them.

Recently, I had the pleasure of watching a performance of a play entitled “That Night” based on Karen’s exoneration of Dana Holland. It was amazing to see actors playing Karen and Dana, with them in the audience just seats down from me.

Karen transformed the lives of not only her clients but also her students and colleagues at the Center on Wrongful Convictions. A number of her former students—notably Greg Swygert and Andrea Lewis Hartung—have focused their careers on wrongful conviction or other public interest endeavors. One of her high-profile exonerees, Kristine Bunch, joined another exonerated Center client, Juan Rivera, to start an organization to help the exonerated adjust to life outside of prison.

Karen’s legacy is indelible in the minds of all who knew and loved her—and in the annals of criminal justice reform.

Judy Royal is a former staff attorney at the Center on Wrongful Convictions who co-founded the Center’s Women’s Project with Karen Daniel.