Rob Warden describes his path to leader for criminal justice reform

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As a young reporter for the Chicago Daily News, Rob Warden was not much troubled by the death sentence imposed on Richard Speck, convicted of murdering eight women in a townhouse on Chicago’s South Side. Indeed, Warden writes, it seemed a shame six years later that no exception was carved out for Speck when some 600 death sentences across the country were vacated as a result of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Furman v. Georgia. 

In the years since, Warden’s work has played a leading role in ending the death penalty and creating reforms of a variety of police procedures that open the door to wrongful convictions.

In the newly released volume of Northwestern University’s Journal on Criminal Law and Criminology, Warden — co-founder and co-director of Injustice Watch — provides a fascinating look at how that transformation occurred. It all seemed to flow from a letter sent to Chicago Lawyer magazine, when Rob was editor there, from a man who said he and three other African Americans had been wrongly convicted for the 1978 murder of a couple abducted from a Homewood, Illinois gas station.

Warden writes that after he and Chicago Lawyer managing editor Margaret Roberts reviewed the record in the case, the potential for a miscarriage of justice was striking: “Roberts and I had no opinion about whether the defendants were innocent or guilty, but it was patently obvious that they had not received fair trials — and that a system as shoddy as the one that produced such a dubious result had no business making life-and-death judgments. If the sky had not fallen when Richard Speck’s life was spared, it seemed to me, the death penalty should be abolished.”

Warden goes on to describe a series of wrongful convictions that he would unearth at Chicago Lawyer and beyond. Tellingly, his work did not merely help correct individual injustices, but focused on reforms in how investigations are conducted to ensure that innocent people are not swept up in the system. As Warden writes, ending the death penalty “will not cure the ills of the criminal justice system. It only will eliminate the worst consequence of the problems that plague it.”

Read Warden’s full piece here.

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