About this series: Lighting the Way With … is a periodic series in which we shine a light on Lawrence University alumni. Today we catch up with Andrea Lewis Hartung ’05, a lawyer and clinical assistant professor of law at Northwestern University who works with the Center on Wrongful Convictions.
Even when Andrea Lewis Hartung ’05 wins a case, she finds it difficult to celebrate.
A lawyer specializing in post-conviction law, Lewis Hartung fights to overturn wrongful convictions, a small but growing field of law that garners attention whenever a wrongfully convicted client is exonerated, often after years of incarceration. But the slog through the legal system is long and difficult, and the reality of a win means an innocent person has had a large chunk of their life taken from them.
“I’d say the victories are bittersweet,” Lewis Hartung said. “The work is slow. These cases often take years to move back through the criminal justice system. There are a lot of road blocks along the way. So, it definitely feels good when there’s a win, when a client gets exonerated or otherwise released from prison, but at the same time there’s always the recognition that there’s a person who was in prison for a crime they did not commit. They’ve essentially lost their life.
“Things have to be relearned, and relived under this stigma of a prior conviction. There’s a lot of work that has to be done to rebuild a life after a wrongful conviction. So, even if we win, when an individual gets out of prison, that sense of relief is there, but there’s also an enormous struggle to rebuild a life that was lost.”
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It is work that Lewis Hartung has a passion for, built on the liberal arts foundation she embraced while at Lawrence University, where she majored in psychology and Spanish. She would go on to study law at Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law, working as a student in the school’s Center on Wrongful Convictions.
After graduating, she worked for a Chicago firm in the labor and employment law group, and did some pro bono work in criminal law and other areas. But the wrongful convictions work continued to tug at her heart. She returned to Northwestern and the Center on Wrongful Convictions in 2013 as a clinical fellow, a position focused on female prisoners who were believed to have been wrongfully convicted. She then transitioned into a faculty position two years later. She now teaches post-conviction law and works cases for the clinic.
A recent exoneration happened in the Arkansas case of Tina Jimerson, a woman who spent more than 26 years in prison after being wrongfully convicted in 1992 of being an accessory to a 1988 murder and robbery. Jimerson and three other defendants had been sentenced to life in prison. After years of legal fighting, including a confession from one of the convicted that he acted alone and a U.S. Court of Appeals ruling affirming that prosecutors and police intentionally concealed a jailhouse informant interview, Jimerson and another defendant were exonerated.
Jimerson was released from prison in 2018. But it took until September of this year for charges to be formally dismissed.
“When we got word that Tina was exonerated, it was definitely worth all the work,” Lewis Hartung said.
The process is difficult. The end point can feel a long way off. But there are moments on the journey that provide reassurance, Lewis Hartung said.
“There are little steps along the way that make the work worthwhile for me,” she said. “Small things like a client thanking me for listening to their story, or telling me that no one has asked them what happened before, or no one has asked them to walk through their story before. They are thankful for that. … I think it’s worth joining them for that fight.”
The Center on Wrongful Convictions, launched in 1999, is one of dozens of organizations across the country dedicated to overturning wrongful convictions. Since 1989, nearly 2,700 convicted individuals have been exonerated in the U.S., according to the National Registry of Exonerations.
Fueled by the Lawrence experience
When she was a student at Lawrence, Lewis Hartung knew she wanted to be a lawyer. She just hadn’t quite centered on where that might lead her. But she knew the liberal arts foundation would take her where she needed to go.
“One of the best parts of the Lawrence experience was that the educational process was a little bit entrepreneurial,” she said. “You pick a major along the way but Lawrence really encourages students to take courses that interest them and to develop as students. Having the opportunity to sort of push my own boundaries, take classes that may or may not have gone toward my major, and being at a liberal arts college in general, I think was helpful to becoming a lawyer later on. In much the same way, I work on my cases and I take on clients and I have to be pretty creative in determining what to do with cases and how a client may or may not be helped, and I do think having that liberal arts background and having sort of a broader education has helped along the way.”
It was just a matter of time until she found her calling. She initially held off on jumping into law school, instead taking another job in the legal field.
“I wanted to observe what lawyers did for a living, then make a decision from there,” she said.
That eventually led her to Northwestern, back to her Chicago roots. She continues to live near Chicago with her husband, Chris, and their young son, Rob.
Reconnecting with Lawrence
In that first decade after graduating from Lawrence, Lewis Hartung said she mostly lost contact with her alma mater. But when she got an email about efforts to organize a Black alumni reunion, she was intrigued. That eventually brought her back to campus, where she connected with President Mark Burstein and other campus leaders and engaged in conversations about getting and staying involved. She became active with the Black Alumni Network and was named to the Lawrence University Alumni Association Board of Directors.
“I know I, and other alumni, would really like to be a bit more involved with student mentorship,” she said.