If you tracked down Tara Thompson's childhood friends and told them what she was doing these days, she says they wouldn't be surprised.
"I can remember as a kid doing mock trial stuff in grade school, thinking, 'This is what I want to do,'" says Thompson, 32, a 2003 honors graduate from the
and — since 2007 — an associate at Loevy & Loevy, a Chicago law firm specializing in civil rights work.
"You look at the profession, and it doesn't have an especially positive image. But I think of attorneys as someone you turn to for help. That's why I wanted to be a lawyer."
Much of her time is devoted to people who have no one else to turn to. Since 2008 she has been a staff attorney with the Exoneration Project at the University of Chicago Law School. The project works to free individuals who were convicted of crimes they did not commit, taking cases that interest few private lawyers.
One of her major successes is James Harden, one of the so-called Dixmoor Five. He and four other teenagers were convicted of the 1991 rape and murder of 14-year-old Cateresa Matthews. After a long fight, Thompson and her staff established his innocence through
evidence, and he, along with two other defendants, were freed (two others had pleaded guilty and served shorter sentences).
"We did a lot of work on the case and nothing worked out originally," she says. "Then we went after the DNA. The police said they couldn't find the evidence at first, and we got a court order. We forced them to look for it. Then they found it. It took a year, the most frustrating year of my life."
And when Harden was freed?
"I can't even say how that felt."
Q: How'd you get involved with the Exoneration Project?
A: In about 2008 Jon Loevy (founder of Loevy & Loevy) wanted to start a project to do post-conviction work. Not many lawyers do this. The cases are time-consuming and expensive. He hired me to work for the firm part time and run the project.
Q: How many hours a week do you devote to the project?
A: I'm not sure I want to see that number of hours in print. It's like any profession — people find themselves putting in a lot of time. This is definitely that kind of work.
Q: Where do your clients come from?
A: As a lawyer you're not allowed to solicit clients. We wouldn't have to do it, though. We get a lot of calls and tons of letters from around the country.
Q: How do you choose?
A: One criteria for the work we do is we only take cases of people who are innocent. The clients we take to court are clients we really, really believe in.
Q: Even if you know a person is innocent, it's a long haul.
A: These cases are so hard to win. Sometimes you have to find witnesses. You can show up (at their home) and they're not home. Do they want to talk to you? Things have to break right. Whether we win or lose isn't always based on how good a lawyer you are, but other factors. ... A lot depends on things falling your way. But also working hard. There are no shortcuts.
Q: How has what you do changed you?
A: It's really humbling. You see people with lives that are so different from yours, and they've really suffered. Their lives are so very different through no fault of their own. Working extensively with people in prison has given me a different perspective. You're not so judgmental of people. Somebody might judge a person in prison because of a conviction — oh, they must be guilty, they're in prison — but now I think I see people more on who they are.
Q: What's the best part of your job?
A: I think you would expect me to say having people walk out of prison. There's no way to describe that feeling. But I think it's just contributing to other people. Attorneys are service professionals. While we can't help them all right away, people appreciate having someone stand up for them. That's gratifying. Sticking up for the little guy.
Q: What's the worst part?
A: The feeling that I did everything I could do, knowing that person is innocent, knowing what the (result) should be, and I lost. I was raised to think that if there's justice, you'll win. As lawyers we're taught we're powers in society. It's hard to see things happen that I can't control.
Q: What do you do to relax?
A: I've been playing hockey lately. It's a women's league, and we play around the Chicago area. My team is from Carol Stream.
Q: What position?
A: Defense. I'm not a particularly good skater. I'm working on that part of my game.