I was so moved by an event I attended last Friday celebrating outgoing Center on Wrongful Convictions (CWC) Executive Director Rob Warden that I wanted to pay tribute to this great man and introduce you to him in this blog. Warden co-founded the CWC at Northwestern University Law School in 1999 and he’s been a local stalwart in the work to free innocent prisoners since that time. A fellow advocate for the wrongfully convicted, Barry Scheck of New York’s Innocence Project, served as keynote speaker at last week’s event and titled his speech, “For the Love of Rob.” The two men were and are pioneers in a social justice movement that seeks to free the staggering numbers of innocent people who remain incarcerated nationwide and to bring substantive reform to the legal system – and systems – responsible for their unjust imprisonment.
I have provided assistance to the CWC and Innocence Project over the years and as you’ve probably sensed, I’m a very big proponent of both organizations. I’ve met Rob Warden briefly at events but really got to know him last Friday through all the words spoken about him and his half-century career in pursuing truth and justice.
A Tireless Champion against Wrongful Conviction
Scheck likened Rob to Jimmy Stewart’s character in the 1948 film Call Northside 777, based on the true story of a persistent Chicago reporter who proved a man imprisoned for murder had been wrongfully convicted. Scheck also described Rob through his many great qualities, including down-to-earth generosity, his sense of history, his scholarship, his Rolodex (“he knows everyone”), and his obsession with proving innocence. But Rob’s best quality, according to Scheck, is his ability as a journalist – his muckraking, crusading, investigative reporting and his deep ability to use journalism as an instrument for social change.
Freeing Innocent People from Death Row
And promote social change he has. In 1965, Rob joined the Chicago Daily News and this award-winning legal affairs journalist has since been described as dogged and fearless in his reporting from Chicago to the Middle East. Rob also worked for The Washington Post and then helped start Chicago Lawyer, a monthly journal. Rob’s reporting for Chicago Lawyer was instrumental in exonerating and freeing six innocent men from death row in Illinois. Rob’s reporting on this topic launched a movement that eventually led to the abolition of the death penalty in Illinois in 2011. Rob also played a leading role in establishing and running the National Registry of Exonerations, a joint project of the Center for Wrongful Convictions and the University of Michigan Law School. Since 1989 there have been 1,367 exonerations counted by the Registry – a number believed to be a fraction of those that have taken place.
Yellow Flowers in a Vase
What struck me the most, though, about Rob’s legacy were the tributes made by exonerees who attended his farewell event. Imagine a sea of men and women and their families, striding across the stage as their names are called. Each adding a yellow flower to a vase, creating a beautiful bouquet. Each embracing their champion advocate, believer and friend.
The Fiercest Fighter
Some of these individuals were exonerated and set free after years in prison, others decades. Rob was among their fiercest fighters. To learn more about the Center on Wrongful Convictions and the Innocence Project please visit their websites: http://www.law.northwestern.edu/legalclinic/wrongfulconvictions/ and http://www.innocenceproject.org/.