The University of Chicago Magazine

June 1997

Theory in Practice

In the Law School's Mandel Legal Aid Clinic, students and faculty apply their studies to their practice, changing lives and the law.

By Kim Sweet

Photography by Lloyd DeGrane

EVEN IF YOU HAVEN'T BEEN accused of anything, Cook County Juvenile Court is a scary place. Part of an imposing compound at 1100 South Hamilton Avenue that also includes a detention center and school, the building's stark, white walls put up a less-than-welcoming front.

The interior's not so friendly, either. Except for the regulars--attorneys, judges, and staff--who flash an ID at the guards, all who enter must line up, women on one side, men on the other, and walk through a metal detector. Setting it off prompts a quick frisking. Bags ride through a scanner, and are frequently opened and searched.

Past the main lobby, guards sweep regularly through the halls to encourage people standing without a purpose or a direction to find one, and soon. Most visitors retreat into the small, brick-walled waiting areas, filled with rows of benches, just outside the courtrooms. No one talks much. Parents keep their children close. A few defendants are in here somewhere, but who can tell which they are? They're just kids.

Only sets of glass double doors, partially covered by paper signs, separate these spartan rooms from the inner sanctum, the courtrooms. Third-year Law School students Randee Waldman and Laural Jin have been through these doors before. But on this Wednesday morning in mid-February, Waldman and Jin--backed by their 711 (student) licenses, the assistance of second-year law student Manish Shah, and the guidance of clinical lecturer Herschella G. Conyers, AB'72, JD'83--are going to perform for the first time.

Their 14-year-old client, Kevin [the names of all clients have been changed throughout this story], was adjudicated delinquent--the juvenile version of "found guilty"--of murder in October 1995. The case had made national headlines for a year: Kevin is the older of the two boys, 10 and 11 at the time of the crime, charged with dropping 5-year-old Eric Morse from a 14th-story window at Chicago's Ida B. Wells housing project. Since early 1996, Kevin has been in a medium-security youth prison. Conyers and her students are appealing the delinquency ruling, but today they're fighting a different battle. Convinced that the Illinois Juvenile Department of Corrections isn't giving Kevin the help he needs to be a productive member of society, they're trying to have him transferred to a locked residential treatment facility. They know that many people have described Kevin as a monster, but they don't believe in giving up on 14-year-olds. They're in for a long day.

Above photo: Outside a CHA building, social worker Michelle Geller discusses her client's new job at a fast-food restaurant.

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