In 1985, fresh out of law school and embarked on a career with a major corporate-law firm, Terri Mascherin began the pro bono work that would lead to the most rewarding, and surprising, moments in her career--challenging Illinois' death-penalty statute, gaining clemency for a client from a Republican governor, and lunching at a Chicago restaurant with a client she first encountered on death row.
"I first became intrigued, very interested in, civil rights and constitutional rights when I was at Duke," Mascherin says. "I took all the courses that [history professor William] Chafe taught about the civil-rights movement in the South and learned about Brown v. Board of Education and all the big civil-rights cases."
After graduating from Northwestern University law school, she took a job with the Chicago firm Jenner & Block and soon began requesting pro bono criminal cases on top of her sixty-plus hours of work weekly for business clients. In her first case, she successfully defended a Lithuanian priest arrested while protesting the closing of a nursing home. She then joined two colleagues in tackling a death-penalty case.
Dickey Gaines, who was imprisoned on Illinois' death row for a double homicide, had written Jenner & Block for help with an appeal. Even so, when Mascherin and her colleagues arrived at the prison for their first meeting, he wasn't ready to accept their help--not, that is, until he had had a chance to interview them.
"He had just gotten to the point that he had realized that if he was going to get out of this situation, he was going to have to help himself," Mascherin says of Gaines' spunky insistence on testing the know-how of three big-firm lawyers offering to help him for free. "He had had a lawyer appointed to represent him at trial who literally never met with him," she says. "His lawyer billed twelve hours to preparing the case--in a double homicide."
Mascherin and her colleagues represented Gaines through five appeals over eight years. At one point, it looked as if his case could challenge the constitutionality of Illinois' death penalty--his lawyers argued that death-penalty juries are racially biased. In 1988, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Gaines, but on other grounds. His death sentence was overturned, and he was given two concurrent forty-year sentences.
With good behavior, he was released in 1997 and immediately contacted Mascherin. The two made plans to meet at her office for lunch and later attended a conference on wrongful convictions at Northwestern. "Some lawyers through their substandard work give the legal profession a bad name," Gaines said in an e-mail interview from his home in California, "but it is lawyers like Terri Mascherin, [and her colleagues] David Bradford and Robert Markin which contribute to the positive side of the legal profession by virtue of their diligent representation of their clients."
In 1990, while still handling Gaines' case and her full-time telecommunications practice, Mascherin picked up another death-penalty client, Willie Thompkins Jr. With her help, Thompkins, after three appeals, received a judgment from an unexpected source: In 2003, then-Illinois governor George Ryan gave blanket clemency to all of the state's death-row inmates.
"I venture to say that no one involved in death-penalty defense work in Illinois throughout the decades of the 1980s and 1990s would have predicted [this]," she wrote in an article in the University of Toledo Law Review.
Mascherin says she has become convinced that the best response to the death penalty--even better than efforts to abolish it--is to provide good-quality initial representation to defendants accused of capital offenses. To that end, two years ago, she agreed to chair the American Bar Association's Death Penalty Representation Project.
"We have this crazy backward system," she says, "where volunteer lawyers devote all of these resources to getting a conviction and sentence overturned because someone wasn't properly represented at the trial level."
Terri Mascherin '81
And Justice for All
October 1, 2005