Defense lawyer Curtis Lovelace has a special bond with his clients during the nerve-racking moments that precede the delivery of a verdict.
“I’ve been in that seat and I’ve been in that jail. I know what it’s like to sit and wait for a verdict,” Lovelace told me recently in a phone call on his way to meet a client at the McLean County jail.
Lovelace was thrown into the arena of the criminal justice system when he was charged with murder eight years after the death of his wife, Cory. Lovelace found her dead in the family home in Quincy in 2006.
News of the charges gained greater oxygen because Lovelace, the father of four, was lead prosecutor for Adams County at the time. The first trial ended in a hung jury and a second trial in 2017 brought an acquittal. With assistance from the University of Chicago’s Exoneration Project, Lovelace was able to prove that his wife’s death was due to natural causes.
Love and his new wife, Christine, opened the Lovelace Center for Criminal Defense in Urbana after his acquittal. The couple moved the practice to Chicago last year after spending much of their time traveling Illinois highways defending some of the toughest cases.
On Saturday, Lovelace’s client James K. Day was found not guilty of murder by a Woodford County jury in the death of his mother. Unable to post bail, Day waited in jail for four years for his trial date. Day’s case was a difficult one, Lovelace acknowledged, because of the scientific evidence involved in showing Day did not set fire to the home he shared with his mother after allegedly killing her.
But Lovelace is attracted to difficult cases.
“We take cases where people insist they’re innocent and not interested in a plea deal,” he said.
As the trial date inched closer, Day’s family reached out to Lovelace in hopes he would take the case. The lawyer was impressed with Day’s claim of innocence.
“I believed him,” Lovelace told me. The commitment to serve as Day’s lawyer came before Lovelace had seen any of the evidence the state intended to use at trial.
People waiting months and sometimes years for their cases to be resolved often become impatient and despondent. Having spent two years in jail during his wrongful prosecution, Lovelace knows what it feels like to wait behind bars.
“My experience gives me a level of empathy I wouldn’t have without going through what I went through,” he said. As a lawyer, he understands that delays are often a necessary part of trial preparation.
Day, however, “was unbelievably patient for a person who ended up spending four years in a county jail,” said Lovelace.
In a year of COVID-19 when trials were few and far between in most counties, Lovelace handled four jury trials. Two of those cases were in Adams County where he won one case and lost another. Being back in the courthouse where he once served as chief prosecutor was difficult, he admitted. “There’s a lot of memories there, not good memories.”
More needs to be done to raise awareness of wrongful prosecutions and convictions, said Lovelace. Innocence projects in Springfield and Chicago comprise a small circle of dedicated lawyers who handle the most difficult cases, including those that require an unraveling of mistakes made decades earlier by police and prosecutors.
“We do need more people involved because there’s a lot of people in our prisons whose cases need review. It’s one thing to get people out but it’s another to identify the issues that led to the wrongful conviction,” said Lovelace.