CHICAGO — For the last 15 years, one Chicago lawyer has stood out for his ability to overturn wrongful convictions.
Josh Tepfer is an attorney at the Chicago law firm Loevy & Loevy, where a team of lawyers, investigators, paralegals and case managers operate what’s known as the Exoneration Project. Over many years, Tepfer has established himself as the most accomplished exoneration lawyer around, responsible for almost 300 exonerations.
Tepfer ultimately helped right wrongs that cost two men dearly.
Terrill Swift, who was given a 30-year sentence for the rape and murder of a woman on Chicago’s South Side when he was 17 and Francisco Benitez, who was given a life sentence for murder on the West Side. Both were wrongly convicted and Tepfer helped set them free.
“Josh seems to overturn convictions,” Jon Loevy, from Loevy & Loevy, said. “He does mass exonerations, where he exonerates groups of people, and he does individual exonerations. So somebody’s got to be the most successful at it and it seems to be Josh.”
It all started with Terrill Swift. In 1995, he was one of the Englewood Four who were arrested for the rape and murder of Nina Glover. It was a crime to which Swift eventually confessed. Looking back, Swift says it was manipulation.
“I’m 17, right? I’m in a police station being accused of a rape and a murder of someone I have no idea of,” Swift said. “I’m literally crying for my mother for help. I was a mother’s boy and you’re literally telling me ‘You’re never going to see your mother again, you’re dying in jail for what you did to her.’ ‘What did I do, sir?’ That’s a torture.”
It’s a phenomenon Tepfer observed over and over again; a pattern of what he said is police misconduct that results in a false confession.
“Lying, physical abuse, psychological coercion, lying about what happened in the interrogation room,” Tepfer said. “Everyone has their breaking point, I mean you do, right, I do, all of us do, at some point whatever it is. For some people the breaking point must be like ‘I believe the police and I’m going to go home if I just say what they want.’”
That same manipulation happened to Benitez, even though he had an alibi the day the two teen victims were shot and killed in Humboldt Park in 1989.
“It’s hell in prison, I mean especially for someone that’s innocent,” Benitez said. “I mean how do you go about day by day being around people that are murderers, killers, rapists whatever they are, when you know you’re not any of those things?”
Tepfer, a Highland Park native who lives in Oak Park, has given talks on false confessions. He said he understands the “how,” but not the “why.”
On “Wrongful Conviction Day” in early October Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx acknowledged flaws in the system that need to be addressed.
From Tepfer’s perspective, the problem is clear.
“I do believe overwhelmingly, I mean overwhelmingly, the cause of wrongful conviction is intentional misconduct by state actors of some sort. There’s intentional wrongdoing, hiding of evidence and that is to me that is the number one factor,” Tepfer said.
Even in the face of multi-million dollar settlements.
Swift received his when DNA evidence proved the killer was someone else. But by then, he’d served his sentence. A clean slate was his goal.
According to Tepfer, it’s not only about justice, but public safety. In Terrill’s case, the real killer raped and murdered again.
“He was a very, very violent man that was in the grasp of police,” Tepfer said. “He was at the crime scene and they let him go.”
Terrill now helps to train police officers and works on reform legislation.
“There’s a host of other young men and women who are still there, right now today, with the same cry as I had,” Swift said.
Benitez, who is now 53, went home in September, after serving 34 years.
“I’m not bitter. I mean I’m angry at the system, yeah, becasue it’s broken,” Benitez said. “The majority of cops they’re not bad cops. Just that one or two just makes it hard on everybody else.”
“At the end of the day, we represent amazing humans who are fighting for their lives, who never give up hope,” said Anand Swaminathan, an exoneration attorney at Loevy & Loevy. “It takes a relentless optimism because you’re dealing with situations where to get from where they are to home from prison is to try to climb such a big mountain. You have to have optimism that you can do this you can find a way to do the thing that nobody’s been able to do before.”
Each member at Loevy & Loevy knows that there are many more unjust convictions that need light.
When asked, if the enormity of it all and the consequence of it, ever overwhelm Tepfer, he said:
“If I ever go for a run, like usually I’m thinking about work. If I’m in the shower, I’m usually thinking about my clients. Having other interests, having my family and my kids, it has a quick way of taking that out of your brain.
For Tepfer, who attended Northwestern University and got his law degree from the University of Minnesota, it harkens back to his days working in the Chicago Office of the State Appellate Defender’s office and the very reason he found his way into criminal justice.
“I think a life worth living is finding some sliver of injustice, some sliver of a problem in the world, whether it’s one person or one policy. Whatever it is, dedicate some time to helping solve that problem – there’s a lot,” Tepfer said.
Loevy & Loevy takes on these cases on a pro bono basis. They say no promises or expectations are made from either party.
Often when there is a settlement, the firm wins on behalf of the exoneree, the proceeds go to defray the cost of their ongoing work.