Shelisa Thomas (JD ’19) met Corzell J. Cole, Sr. in the winter of 2018. At the time, Thomas was a 3L, and Cole was serving a 50-year sentence for first-degree and attempted murder. Their meeting would turn out to be life-changing for the both of them.
Thomas had taken “Violence Reduction & Transformational Change in Justice Systems,” a class taught by Professor Sheila Bedi. “It was onsite at the prison,” Thomas says. “[Cole] was a part of the same project group as me. I got to learn a lot about him.” They stayed in touch after Thomas graduated. “There was a point where he [told me] that he was working on clemency and that a lawyer had prepared a draft petition for him,” she says. “He wanted to know my thoughts on it.” Eventually he asked if Thomas would be interested in taking him on as a client. She said yes.
In 2003, Cole was convicted of first-degree murder and attempted murder in relation to a shooting in Joliet, Illinois. He was driving a car with another man in the passenger seat. As they were stopped at a traffic light, another car pulled up next to them. The passenger in the same car as Cole started shooting at the people inside, killing a man and wounding his 19-year-old daughter. Even though Cole was not the one to pull the trigger, he was arrested and charged in connection with the crimes.
Cole was the first person in Illinois to have his prison sentence reconsidered as a result of SB2129—an amendment to the state’s criminal code that Governor J.B. Pritzker signed into law last summer. The new powers granted under SB2129 allow prosecutors to ask judges to revise sentences when “the original sentence no longer advances the interests of justice.”
Steven Drizin, William M. Trumbull Clinical Professor of Law and co-director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions, was co-counsel on the case. “What made this case unique is that we needed to vacate the first-degree murder conviction because the first-degree murder conviction carries mandatory sentencing and also a requirement that the defendant serve a hundred percent of their sentence,” Drizin says. “We had to find a way to get his conviction reduced to second degree murder, in order to get him out. To his credit, State’s Attorney [James] Glasgow agreed.”
In December 2021, Drizin received a call from Will County State’s Attorney James W. Glasgow. Drizin says he was floored that Glasgow shared in his and Thomas’ opinion on the case. “I nearly fell out of my chair,” Drizin says. “It wasn’t so much that he was in support of the case. My perception of him was that he was a straight shooter, a very tough-as-nails prosecutor, but somebody who was concerned with fairness. But I was still surprised that he would go to bat for somebody who was convicted of first-degree murder.” Drizin says that’s something few prosecutors are willing to do, whether it’s because they are worried they’ll be depicted as “soft on crime,” or are not wanting to dig up emotions in grieving families. “Coming back to [the victim’s family] and saying, ‘We still think Corzell is guilty, but he’s just not as guilty as we thought and we think he should be released,’ is a very tough conversation,” Drizin says.
Between the SB2129 amendment and Glasgow’s support, Thomas says a clear path was revealed. “[Glasgow] was pretty upset that Corzell was incarcerated,” she says. “He felt it was extremely unjust.” Instead of just supporting the clemency, he had the first-degree murder conviction vacated. After Cole plead guilty to second-degree murder, he was resentenced and released from prison almost immediately. Cole served more than 19 years in prison; Thomas’s work and Glasgow’s grace lopped 28 years off his sentence.
As a result of Thomas’ hard work and dedication to justice, she won this year’s Edward J. Lewis II Pro Bono Service Award from the Chicago Bar Foundation (CBF), which she received during the 2022 CBA & CBF Pro Bono & Public Service Awards ceremony in July at the Hilton Chicago.
Cole wrote a letter to the CBF in support of Thomas’ nomination, an unprecedented act. “I think it’s extraordinary,” Drizin says. “I think that it speaks volumes about the way in which Shelisa is a client-centered, empathic lawyer who built an extraordinary relationship of trust with Corzell. For someone who is so young, in terms of their years out of law school, that’s remarkable.”
The CBA and CBF welcomed more than 400 people from the legal community to honor Thomas and six other attorneys for their pro bono and public service achievements. In her speech Thomas said, “As lawyers, we have the power to change lives.” In conversation, she expounds on that point. “From something as simple as going to the store, that’s a transaction. There are laws that cover that. Or your taxes, or homeownership. Law is everywhere.” She continues, “As a lawyer, it’s a way for you to have the ability to touch almost any area of a person life. [We] have the power to influence those laws, interpret those laws, and have the power to help people navigate the legal landscape.”
Thomas, who also won the American Lawyer’s Young Lawyer of the Year Beyond Practice Award in November, graduated from Northwestern Pritzker School of Law in 2019. Since the fall of that year, she has been an associate at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP and Affiliates in Chicago. She says the possibility of being an attorney wasn’t always in her plans for her life.
“My plan was not always set in stone to be a lawyer,” she says. During her teenage years, she was a manager at an auto repair shop. That’s when the idea of being a corporate lawyer first struck. “I didn’t really know what that meant, it just made sense given the type of work I was doing.” When she went to college, she got heavily involved in research and thought her future was moving towards a joint JD-PhD. When she received an offer into Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law, she took up the Law School’s offer of admission to the solo JD program. “I’m not going to say no to a Northwestern Law degree, so I decided I was going to be a lawyer and figure it out.”
As her career grows, Thomas plans to continue her pro bono work. She wants to ensure that she always has at least one or two pro bono matters ongoing at any given time. She explains that she wants to be able to invest adequate time into each of her pro bono matters so that her clients can get the best results possible from her representation. “I look forward to continuing to help folks who have fallen victim to the imperfections of our justice system, and hopefully help them get their lives back.”