On Feb. 22, the Rotary Clubs of Maywood, Proviso Township, Cicero, Stickney, Berwyn and Oak Park-River Forest hosted a screening of the new movie “Just Mercy” followed by a panel discussion on a flawed criminal justice system— a theme that dominated the film and the life of the late Oak Park attorney Karen L. Daniel, on whom Rotary posthumously bestowed one of its highest honors.

“[Daniel’s] work, in my estimation, is part of African American history,” said Talei Thompson, the assistant district governor of Rotary International District 6450, which includes the above Rotary Clubs. Thompson presented members of Daniel’s family with the Paul Harris Fellowship recognition, which they accepted on her behalf.

“I thank her so much for being a champion, freeing individuals who were wrongly convicted. Individuals from my community — both the South and West Sides of Chicago,” said Thompson, a native of North Lawndale. “I think that it’s worth being in history books that children should be reading about for decades to come.”

Daniel, 62, died last December, when she was struck by a car while walking her dog in Oak Park. She had retired as co-director of Northwestern University Law School’s Center on Wrongful Convictions the year of her death. According to the center’s biography of Daniel, at least 20 of her clients were exonerated or freed from prison.

Rotary created the Harris Fellowship recognition in 1957 to recognize “individuals who contribute, or who have contributions made in their name, of $1,000 to The Rotary Foundation of Rotary International,” according to the organization’s website. The foundation supports a range of philanthropic efforts around the world, such as providing medical services and treated mosquito nets to prevent malaria.

During Saturday’s panel discussion, Rotarians and other community members reflected on their own experiences with a criminal justice system that ensnared Walter McMillan, an African American man who was wrongfully convicted of a 1986 murder in Alabama. The film “Just Mercy” dramatizes the effort of Bryan Stevenson, McMillan’s young defense attorney, to appeal McMillan’s conviction. The movie is based on Stevenson’s 2014 memoir of the same name.

Osei David Andrews-Hutchinson, the former governor of Rotary International District 6450, said the film underscored for him an often overlooked aspect of police brutality, which he said is a form of terrorism.

Once, Atlanta police pulled a gun on Stevenson, who is black. The young attorney, then in his 20s, was simply sitting outside of his home listening to the radio.

“I think we need to start naming it as that,” said Andrews-Hutchinson, who said the film’s dramatization of moments like that one resonated with him, because he’s experienced them himself.

“As an African American male, when I’m stopped by the police and when I encounter those situations, I’m being put in a terrorist situation … Unfortunately, we only see terrorism one way in this country, but there is terrorism that happens on a daily basis in a number of our concerns, but it’s never labeled as that.”

Xavier Ramey, the CEO and lead strategist of Justice Informed — a Chicago-based consulting firm that specializes in social justice issues — put forth an “invitation to justice” that he said, “too many people are declining.”

Andrea Lewis, a Northwestern law professor affiliated with the Center on Wrongful Convictions and one of the day’s panelists, said that Daniel was her teacher and mentor.

When prompted by Ramey to define what justice means to her, Lewis said “justice is earning an equitable result.”

CONTACT: michael@oakpark.com 

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