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Illinois

NIU Law Students To Represent Inmates In Civil Rights Cases

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Officials present the check to fund the new initiative

Several NIU law students will take on prisoner civil rights cases in northern Illinois.

The program is meant to help address a shortage of lawyers in such cases, which often involve plaintiffs who are transferred among various prisons, making it difficult for a lawyer to contact them.

Third-year law students will take on a case in the fall and work on it for a full year as part of their legal education.

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Credit Chase Cavanaugh
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Sharonda Roberson

Sharonda Roberson is one of the six students taking part in the program. She says she’s been to jury trials before, but says taking part in one during the spring will be a completely different endeavor.

“It’s kind of intimidating to know that I’ll be one of the people picking jurors," Roberson said. "I’ll have to sit there through that process and use different tactics to pick the right jury. It’s like you’ve got to learn  about each person in a short period of time."

Participating students will be allowed to try the cases in federal court under the supervision of an experienced civil rights trial attorney.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Iain Johnston says the students will work for a year on their cases, starting with gathering information and addressing depositions by both prisoners and corrections officers. 

“The case will be going through the pre-trial process, including a final pretrial order, Johnston. said. "Then the trial would be in the spring, so it would be throughout the entire academic year.”

The program was funded by a grant from the Rockford chapter of the Federal Bar Association. Law School Associate Dean Mark Falkoff hopes if this fall’s cadre of students is successful, they can expand the program to cover more cases and teach more students in coming years.