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Documentary class with track record of exonerations takes up the Jamie Snow case

Jamie Snow waves to family and friends in the courtroom during a hearing Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021, in Bloomington.
David Proeber
The Pantagraph (Pool)
Jamie Snow waves to family and friends in the courtroom during a hearing Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021, in Bloomington.

A trio of students at Georgetown University are sifting through volumes of court records in the Jamie Snow murder case, searching for clues that support his exoneration of murder charges in a 1991 armed robbery that killed a Bloomington gas station attendant.

The undergraduate course informally known as “Making an Exoneree” will produce a documentary in May when students wrap up their review of the case. About 100 students apply for the 15 available slots in the class. The course, taught by Marc Howard and Marty Tankleff, was launched in 2018 and draws on the experience of the two men, childhood friends, who worked together to prove Tankleff’s innocence of murder charges.

After serving 17 years, Tankleff was released and became a New York defense lawyer. He serves as Georgetown’s Peter M. Mullen Distinguished Visiting Professor. Howard is director of the Prisons and Justice Initiative and a professor of government and law at the Washington, D.C. school.

The Prisons and Justice Initiative selects five cases each year for review. Teams of three students rank the cases according to which they would like to investigate.

After looking over details of the Snow case, seniors Madison Langan, Jackson Edwards and Isabelle Chiu were convinced the Bloomington defendant was innocent of the murder charges that sent him to prison for life.

“With Jamie’s case, I thought it was ridiculous just how much evidence there was towards his innocence and how little there was for him to be in prison for the rest of his life,” said Langan.

For Chiu, the weeks of sorting and reading hundreds of pages of records confirmed her first impression that Snow was wrongfully convicted.

“What we’re interested in isn’t just looking at evidence that fits into what we believe, but into finding the truth. And after looking into all the materials in Jamie’s case, we think the truth is that he’s innocent. And that’s why we’re so passionate about working on his case,” said Chiu, who, like many of the students in the class, plans to attend law school after graduation.

Langan’s familiarity with the court system comes from experience as a foster child in Oregon and her advocacy as a teen for legislation to improve the child welfare system.

“In college, I’ve done a lot of different research for professors, so I’m pretty familiar with reading hundred of pages to get it down to a couple” pages, said Langan, adding the law and the court system “is very complicated."

Of the 25 cases reviewed by students since 2018, five defendants have been exonerated or released. The most recent exoneree, Kenneth Bond, was freed in Februaryafter serving 27 years for a murder he has denied he committed when he was 16. Howard was part of the legal team that secured Bond’s release in the case first highlighted in 2018 by “Making an Exoneree.”

Others released or exonerated since "Making an Exoneree" are Valentino Dixon, Eric Riddick, Keith Washington and Arlando Jones III.

The three members of the Snow team will visit Snow soon at Stateville Correctional Center near Joliet. The in-person visit follows phone calls the students have exchanged with Snow.

“The main thing we want to get out of visiting him in Stateville is that he’s able to talk about his own story, in his own words on his own terms,” said Chiu.

Draw your own conclusions

Howard and Tankleff urge students to draw their own conclusions after looking over the materials in the case. Students are cautioned to avoid the rush to judgement common in many wrongful conviction cases.

In Snow’s case, several arguments made by Snow’s defense team with the Exoneration Project in Chicago resonated with the Georgetown students.

“I guess what stood out to me about Jamie’s case was the fact that there was this seemingly clear-cut instance of eyewitness identification and ineffective assistance of counsel,” said Chiu, who sees her focus as “the fact that there are already very clear-cut signs of things that are wrong in Jamie’s case, and those avenues where we can come in and investigate” and help his exoneration efforts.

“Making an Exoneree” will not have access to 8,000 pages of materials released last year by the state and still under review by Snow’s lawyers. The police reports and hundreds of recordings made by investigators are part of Snow’s petition to secure a new trial based on major flaws alleged by his lawyers in how police and Snow’s trial lawyers handled his case.

Karl Leonard, one of Snow’s lawyers, said the legal team is aware of the Georgetown project “and we hope it brings light to not only Jamie’s story, but to the issue of wrongful convictions more generally.”

"The longer I’m in here, the harder it seems to find ways to keep my case and my fight alive in the court of public opinion as well as the criminal courts."
Jamie Snow

As part of their course work, students hear from guest speakers from the media, law enforcement and advocates for the release of wrongfully convicted individuals. For the past five years, the class has heard from Jason Flom, music industry executive and founder of Lava for Good, a series of podcasts focusing on wrongful conviction issues.

Flom told students he is planning a trip to Illinois in April to meet with Gov. JB Pritzker to lobby for clemency for several inmates who have challenged their convictions, including Snow.

In an email to WGLT, Snow said he appreciates the work by Georgetown students.

“The system of justice in this country is broken. And I know the answers about how to fix it have to come through this younger generation. They are the ones who are gonna have to get tired of the wrongful convictions,” said Snow.

Snow said news that the program had selected his case for the investigative project helped pull him from the depths of a deep depression.

“The longer I’m in here, the harder it seems to find ways to keep my case and my fight alive in the court of public opinion as well as the criminal courts,” said Snow.

The idea that people are serving time for crimes they did not commit is a concept many people, including the Georgetown students, did not consider before delving into the decades-old cases.

“I think that they happen a lot more frequently than you’d think. And I think it’s hard to admit that the state or a system you have a lot of trust in, or you should have a lot of trust in, does make mistakes and it can be difficult to question that,” said Chiu.

“I think something that I’ve learned from the class that I think a lot of other people should know is that these aren’t just special, unique instances where something crazy went wrong,” said Chiu. “It’s one thing to read it in the news or in a book. But’s it’s another thing to see it actually play out in live time by people you can see and talk to.”

The arduous task of proving one’s innocence after a conviction is something the average person cannot comprehend “when court justice does not align with actual justice,” said Chiu.

Edith Brady-Lunny was a correspondent at WGLT, joining the station in 2019. She left the station in 2024.