Margaret Byrne, Class of 1982
Founder of the Illinois Clemency Project
Margaret Byrne began practicing law in 1982 as a general practitioner in a neighborhood law office and later went on to co-found the Illinois Clemency Project, an innovative collaboration among members of the legal community dedicated to securing clemency for battered women imprisoned for inuring or killing their abusive spouses. During her time in private practice, Byrne was successful in both seeking clemency for many battered women and filing petitions on behalf of women in prison. She met numerous incarcerated women and recognized that many of their stories were similar and the denial of justice was familiar. This experience led her to co-found the Illinois Clemency Project in the early 1990s and she continues to serve as its Director.
Describe your career path.
I was in in the criminal and civil clinics here at Kent. Those experiences were very important to me to start exploring those two possibilities for practice. I was very interested in criminal defense as a result of that.
When I first graduated I started doing criminal defense. I wasn’t able to make a living at it. From that, I moved my office to where I am 30 years later where I do neighborhood things- real estate things like wills and real estate closings. At the same time, I represent battered women who were charged with crimes. I represent them at trial and in clemency petitions and criminal appeals.
I think it was my education in the clinic at Kent that set me on the path to criminal defense. I sort of refined that to represent battered women and that’s been my avocation. I still do that with this organization that I started. We’ve represented about 65 battered women in prison and gotten about 15 women out of prison, most of whom were convicted of murder. I feel good about that. I do appreciate the experiences I had in the clinic.
What has been your greatest professional achievement?
I would say my work with the battered women. I think to watch 15 women walk out of prison, sometimes literally, because I go there and drive them back to Chicago when they’re getting out. Most recently, a woman had been in prison for 28 years who was serving a life sentence. She should never have been convicted. It feels good to have somebody get out and have her call you from her mother’s front porch looking at the corn across the street, those little things they can’t see in prison.
What has been your greatest challenge?
Anyone who does practice criminal law, you do lose cases, certainly. I recently lost a murder case where I thought my client was innocent. That’s always difficult and painful.
How did Chicago-Kent prepare you for your present success?
For me, the combination of the intelligent, thoughtful professors and the clinical professors. The clinics were great. You really got the feeling of practicing law. To be able to work in the clinics, these real law firms, in the areas that I was interested in- it helped me a great deal.