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Justice for Corzell

Corzell Cole and his attorney Shelisa Thomas ’19 reflect on Cole’s path to freedom and the power of the Northwestern Prison Education Program.

From left, Shelisa Thomas; Mary Pattillo, the Harold Washington Professor of Sociology and African American Studies and chair of the Department of African American Studies; and Corzell Cole after Cole received his associate’s degree in April.Video: Monika Wnuk ’14 MS, ’19 MS

Fall 2022
Voices
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When Corzell Cole walked out of Illinois’ Stateville Correctional Center in late March after more than 19 years behind bars, his lead attorney, Shelisa Thomas ’19 JD, was there to greet him. Cole had been convicted of first-degree murder and attempted murder for his role as the driver in a 2002 shooting. Cole had his wrongful first-degree murder conviction overturned and pled guilty to second-degree murder. His sentence was then reduced thanks to a new Illinois statute that allows resentencing in cases where the “original sentence no longer advances the interests of justice.” In January Cole was one of 20 students admitted to the Northwestern Prison Education Program’s new bachelor’s degree program for incarcerated people, the first of its kind at a top 10 university. (Read more about Cole’s story and NPEP in our 2020 Northwestern Magazine feature story). 

As a Northwestern Pritzker School of Law student, Thomas worked in the Bluhm Legal Clinic’s Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth. Now a banking attorney in the Chicago office of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, Thomas shares her story: 

I met Corzell in fall 2018 when I was taking a law school class with [clinical professor of law and director of the Community Justice and Civil Rights Clinic] Sheila Bedi. We would go to Stateville and have class with the people incarcerated there. Corzell and I stayed in touch. During the pandemic he called me and was like, “Hey, I need to ask you a favor.” 

He had a lawyer working on clemency for him, but when Corzell received an initial draft of the petition, he thought the draft could be more powerful. So he and a friend started working on a supplemental draft. He asked if I could take a look. I reviewed it and told him he had a really powerful story. 

From left, Shelisa Thomas; Mary Pattillo, the Harold Washington Professor of Sociology and African American Studies and chair of the Department of African American Studies; and Corzell Cole after Cole received his associate’s degree in April. Credit: Monika Wnuk ’14 MS, ’19 MS

I brought him on as a pro bono client and reached out to [co-director of Northwestern’s Center on Wrongful Convictions] Steve Drizin ’86 JD to serve as co-counsel. [Thomas prepared the clemency petition to go to Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker ’93 JD. However, Cole’s case was brought back to court to overturn his wrongful first-degree murder conviction and allow him to plead guilty to second-degree murder, and for resentencing based on an Illinois statute that allows judges to review cases when the prosecution and defense agree that a prior conviction or sentence is unjust.]

I grew up in areas of concentrated disadvantage. When you have that, you have higher crime levels. But seeing people in my community going in and out of the justice system, I felt like they needed a voice.  

I have seen the huge difference that not having adequate legal representation can make in somebody’s life. It has the potential to ruin them. 

Corzell went into prison when he was only 19. As a society we’ve conditioned young adults and children to listen to adults … so they’re super susceptible to what police are saying or what lawyers are saying, instead of fighting for themselves. They don’t have that level of advocacy.   

Corzell grew up in not-so-good circumstances and had a very challenging life, the kind of life where tomorrow is never promised. The justice system fell hard on him, particularly because his co-defendant [the gunman] was not apprehended until years after Corzell was convicted. We have a system that focuses on finality: Once you’re convicted, it’s a lot harder to overturn it. So he had very little culpability but this big weight of liability on him. 

After his release, Cole (back row, center right) returned to Stateville Correctional Center to take part in a graduation ceremony with his NPEP class.

Corzell graduated with his associate’s degree from Oakton Community College in April. That was very exciting. 

With State Bill 2129 [which took effect in January], the state’s attorney can take into consideration, among other things, your achievement, your rehabilitation and your restoration to a law-abiding and productive citizen. 

Corzell was an ideal candidate for reconsideration under that bill. He was incarcerated with a less-than-ninth-grade education, and while in prison, [he] earned his GED, earned his associate’s degree with a 4.0 GPA and got accepted into Northwestern to pursue his bachelor’s. He has huge, huge dreams. And now that he’s out, they’re not just dreams — they’re goals. 

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Reader Responses

  • What an inspiring story!

    Joan Reding ’92 O'Fallon, Mo., via Northwestern Magazine

  • I am proud that Northwestern sponsors this much-needed and wonderful program. It also gives law students a meaningful experience of what it’s like as a prisoner and convict.

    Linda laatsch ’91 PhD, Evanston, via Northwestern Magazine

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