Clancy Bireline received affirmation that she could defend citizens in a criminal trial in an unlikely place — the place residents here recognize as the “big pen,” Stateville Correctional Center in Joliet.

Clancy Bireline received affirmation that she could defend citizens in a criminal trial in an unlikely place — the place residents here recognize as the “big pen,” Stateville Correctional Center in Joliet.

“I didn’t think I’d want to be involved in criminal law,” said the 2003 Illinois Valley Central High School graduate.

Through being a law student at Southern Illinois University, she worked for the Downstate Illinois Innocence Project as an extern.

She said she was interested in the psychological aspects of cases.

“Eyewitness identification can lead to wrongful judgements,” said Bireline.

Adding to that may be racial issues, Bireline said in the Grover Thompson case, and the wrong person ends up convicted, which is what the DIIP set out to prove on Thompson’s behalf.

Thompson was sentenced to 40 years in prison for the attempted murder of a Mount Vernon woman in 1981. He died in prison in 1996.

In 2007, convicted serial killer Timothy Krajcir was linked to a murder in Cape Girardeau, Mo., and could have gotten the death penalty. Authorities agreed to take the death penalty off the table if he confessed to his other crimes.

He did not know the names of the victims, Bireline said, because he attacked strangers, but he could describe the location, victim and stabbing.

One of the attacks he described was the incident that put Thompson behind bars.

After researching Krajcir, she interviewed him with another student and their director at the Joliet prison.

“I had no idea what he was going to be like,” said Bireline.

“I found him to be helpful, smart, articulate, and he’s now 60. He was easy to talk to,” said Bireline.

“That’s when I?realized I could meet with a criminal defendant and be able to give them a proper defense.”

In the attorney/client room, glass separated them from Krajcir. They could see and hear each other, but when passing papers back and forth a guard would hand him the paper and pen.

How does Bireline know the wrong person was convicted?

“The fact that there was a serial killer that confessed to that crime. The police chief even said we got the right guy,” said Bireline.

The prep work culminated in a clemency hearing Jan. 11 in front of the Illinois Prisoner Review Board in Springfield.

Bireline said the rules of evidence do not apply in a clemency hearing but it is similar to presenting a case.

The lawyers sit at a long table in front of the board members. They can ask leading questions.

Their group specifically had three witnesses and three law students, so each student examined them in front of the board. She questioned Lt. Paul Echols, who wrote a book about Krajcir.

Krajcir signed an affidavit of committing the crime, which was allowed in the administrative hearing. In a normal case, that would not be allowed.

“We’re defending the credibility of a man who killed nine women and raped 30 women,” said Bireline about proving Krajcir committed the crime and not Thompson.

In Springfield, Bireline and others were able to meet Thompson’s nephew, who gave them a more personal look into their client.

He played the guitar by ear, especially the blues, and taught his nephew to play.

“It really brought the case to another dimension. We didn’t get the benefit of meeting our client,” said Bireline.

Additionally, she said had she have had the opportunity to meet him, she would have liked him.

“I really felt like this is a person I?would have liked and not defined him by a prison record,” said Bireline.

Through the psychological evaluation, they learned Thompson suffered from schizophrenia.

Adding to that, Bireline said, he grew up in the Jim Crow South, and his lawyer, jury and accusers all were white.

“I don’t think he felt comfortable,” said Bireline and added he may have been “very frightened” by the court proceedings.

The outcome of the clemency hearing in 2012 may take a long time to be known. Bireline is prepared for a long wait as she said Gov. Pat Quinn just recently cleared the 2007 petitions from his desk, so she it could be years.

“I definitely didn’t expect to be involved in such a case,” said Bireline.

Getting to this point
While studying at Bradley University, one of Bireline’s professors steered her in the direction of being a lawyer, saying with her personality she was “very suited for the legal field.”

She graduated from Bradley in 2008 with a degree in psychology, and in 2009 from Valparaiso University with a master’s degree in liberal studies with a concentration in human behavior and society.

“I’ve been interested in psychology and mental illness and I?guess from there how government policies affect people who are in medical facilities, taking medicine and more,” said Bireline.

Her interests do not just stop there.

“I’m really aware of social judgments and people. There are a lot of people who need a second glance ...”?Bireline said.

She now is interning with the Colorado Public Defender’s office in Denver. Once she graduates with her juris doctor in May, she plans to study for the bar exam in July, and possibly continue her work with the statewide CPD if possible.

She recently moved to Colorado with her fiancé, David Johnson, who is originally from Grand Junction, Colo.

To relax, they take walks together and enjoy spending time with his nieces, who are 2 and 5 years old.

Back home in Chillicothe are her parents, Phil and Pam Bireline.

From her cases to her interests, Bireline sticks up for the underdog.

“I try to be sympathetic of who is being accused and try to look at it through their eyes,” said Bireline.