Champion for the Innocent
Rachel Brady ’13 won’t let anything—even the Illinois Supreme Court—stop her from clearing the names of the wrongfully convicted and helping them rebuild their lives.
Editor's note: this is a story from the the Spring 2023 Chicago-Kent Magazine. To read the magazine in full, follow this link.
In the state of Illinois, it’s now much easier for innocent individuals who are wrongly convicted to receive financial compensation and to have their records expunged due to the work of Rachel Brady ’13, who took a case all the way to the Illinois Supreme Court—and won.
Brady met Charles Palmer during her first week as a justice fellow at Loevy & Loevy, a Chicago-based civil rights and whistle-blower law firm, in 2017. Palmer had just been exonerated by DNA evidence after spending 17 years in prison for murder.
Brady set about the difficult work of helping Palmer get financial relief.
“One of his parents died while he was in prison. One of his daughters died while he was in prison. He missed out on so much, not to mention the absolute horror of being in prison. And the work history: He has an 18-year gap in his resume. He needed that money to help him get back on his feet,” she says.
After 17 years wrongfully in prison, Palmer was entitled to more than $220,000 from the State of Illinois. Getting a certificate of innocence (COI) is the first step toward getting a faulty record expunged and receiving financial restitution.
A COI also entitles the wrongfully incarcerated to other benefits, such as re-entry programs, that aren’t available to those who didn’t complete their sentence.
It also holds immeasurable emotional value.
“It’s a judicial declaration that a person is innocent. That, in and of itself, has a lot of value to people who have been fighting for decades—screaming for decades—that they’re innocent,” says Brady.
The state opposed Palmer’s petition for the COI. Its counsel argued that DNA evidence taken from under the victim’s fingernails proved Palmer didn’t commit the murder, but it didn’t prove that he had no involvement and wasn’t present.
“How do you prove that you didn't do something? DNA is the gold standard of proving innocence. If DNA isn't enough, what else is there?” Brady asks.
“Maybe if he had known 20 years ago that he would be accused of being there, he could have generated some other evidence,” she adds.
To Brady, this was a gross misreading of the COI statute.
“We were concerned that this would end up in a situation where the state is opposing all the certificates of innocence on the grounds that the person could have been there, simply because it’s nearly impossible for a petitioner to prove that negative,” says Brady. “My team and I just felt like it was wrong. This could not be what the legislation was designed for.”
Danielle Hamilton, a colleague of Brady and partner at Loevy & Loevy, recalls the passion that Brady brought to the brief and the arguments.
“It was the first time I’d ever seen it. She said, ‘This law is wrong, and it needs to be right, and I’m going to change it.’ Then she took it all the way to the Supreme Court, and won—and now things are better,” says Hamilton. “The impact is immeasurable. It’s going to make a huge difference for her client, for future clients, for anyone in Illinois trying to file one of these petitions.”
Brady drew on the moot court skills that she gained while at Chicago-Kent in preparing for her arguments. She even practiced with some of her old moot court buddies.
The stakes were high, and losing wasn’t an option. So she won.
“It is a highlight of my career and probably my life. When I see that case cited in other opinions, for the good law that it is, it feels really good,” she says, smiling.
Now, the formerly incarcerated only have to prove that they didn’t commit the crime that they were convicted of when applying for a COI. They don’t have to defend against other theories.
Brady is now a partner at Loevy & Loevy, specializing in cases of wrongful convictions and unconstitutional confinement and medical care while incarcerated.
These issues first came on her radar when she was a clerk at the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit for two years after graduating.
“Until I started working there, I didn’t know the horrific things that we do to incarcerated folks in this country. I just had no idea,” she says. “I learned a lot about what’s happening inside of our prisons, and it is deeply, deeply disturbing. That kind of put this area of law on my radar a little bit.”
In that time, she saw hundreds of cases brought by pro se prisoners.
“I saw that a lot of their meritorious cases were kicked for procedural reasons, or exhaustion problems, things that would have been solved with a little bit of legal training or assistance,” she remembers.
That sparked her interest in working for the rights of incarcerated persons.
She then completed a two-year Skadden Fellowship with Equip for Equality, where she assisted youth with disabilities transition out of Illinois juvenile justice facilities.
By that point, she had become aware of the work that Loevy & Loevy does, and she couldn’t see herself anywhere else.
“My firm is interesting and unique because we are a private firm, but we fund a nonprofit called the Exoneration Project,” she says. “The firm has used the resources we have as private attorneys to exonerate hundreds and hundreds of people.”
Now, she is working on wrongful conviction cases all over the country. Locally, she’s fighting to get relief for those wrongfully convicted by former Chicago Police Detective Reynaldo Guevara. Currently, 40 of his convictions have been thrown out based on misconduct, and Loevy & Loevy has recently filed eleven more cases.
“It’s going to be expensive to resolve these cases because how do you compensate someone for 20 stolen years? But the city has the responsibility to own up for the misconduct that these detectives committed under its watch, and it just won’t do it, so we will litigate them all,” she says determinedly.
Facing an uphill battle, Brady has never questioned her career choice.
The work can be hard and can be thankless, but it’s worth it in the end.
“When someone has spent 20 years in prison for something they didn’t do, helping them get justice seems like a good pursuit,” she says.