The UI grad and lawyer-turned-writer found a new calling in helping wrongly accused prisoners rebuild their lives.
Jovan Mosley walked away to avoid a fight that resulted in a brutal murder. Six months later, he was accused of killing the victim, coerced into a confession and tossed into Cook County's maximum-security jail. His case fell through the cracks, and he sat in a holding cell awaiting trial for nearly six years.
University of Iowa alumna Laura Caldwell had given up law to become a writer, but she discovered the young man’s plight while doing research for a crime novel.
She teamed up with another lawyer and took the death-penalty case pro bono. The tumultuous trial started off with an empty courtroom and ended with a standing-room-only crowd and a not-guilty verdict.
Now Caldwell directs the Life After Innocence Project at Loyola University Chicago, where she attended law school after earning a communication studies degree from the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.
She works with law students to help wrongfully convicted individuals start over once they’re free (after DNA evidence or the like shows they could never have committed the crime). The project offers assistance with acquiring identification, learning job skills, clearing up criminal records, and meeting basic needs like housing.
“Although Jovan was never convicted, I saw with him how hard it is to start over,” Caldwell says. “People who are wrongfully convicted get essentially nothing upon release except a sweatsuit and a pat on the back. In Illinois, they have a possibility of receiving a relatively small amount of state money, but that involves another court procedure and can take years.”
Caldwell is also finding success as a novelist. By the end of the summer, she’ll have 10 books under her belt, including her new “red” trilogy—Red Hot Lies, Red Blooded Murder and Red, White & Dead. The mystery series focuses on a redheaded Chicago lawyer who moonlights as a private detective.
In September a division of Simon & Schuster will publish a book about Caldwell’s experience with Jovan. Part memoir, part legal thriller, the book details an improbable friendship between an affluent 30-something white woman from Chicago's North Side and an underprivileged 20-something black man from the city's worst neighborhood.
“The whole story is unlikely in many ways,” Caldwell says. “I was gathering information on forced confessions to make one of my novels realistic, and a friend said, ‘You should try this case with me.’ I said, ‘That’s ridiculous. I specialize in medical malpractice and entertainment law, and I don’t even practice law anymore.’
“Soon I, a civil lawyer and law professor, find myself in ‘26th and Cal’—one of the busiest criminal courthouses in the nation—trying a murder case. It was wild, and ultimately one of the most gratifying experiences of my life.”
Caldwell sat second chair to Catherine O’Daniel, a criminal defense attorney certified to handle murder trials. She did research and writing, helped pick jurors, argued the motions, cross-examined the coroner because of her medical background, and helped craft opening and closing arguments.
“We had told Jovan that crying was not allowed in the courtroom,” Caldwell says. “But when we heard that not-guilty verdict, all three of us started crying.”
Today Jovan is a client of the Life After Innocence Project. He earned an associate’s degree in criminal justice at a community college, works at a home for troubled youth, and is pursuing a four-year degree in criminal justice at Loyola. He plans to attend Loyola’s law school, where Caldwell is a Distinguished Scholar in Residence, and, ultimately, he hopes to be a judge.
“Jovan restored my faith in the legal system,” Caldwell says. “The system took so long to work in his case, but he always believed in it. Seeing the legal process come through for him really inspired me to get back into it.”
Story by Nicole Riehl; photo courtesy of Laura Caldwell
July 27, 2009