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December 2002

Richard S. Kling
Clinical Professor of Law

During the 1960s and ‘70s, the counter-culture used "flower power," protests and love-ins to fight the perceived corrupt and over-reaching system of American government. Defense attorney Richard Kling, a self-proclaimed product of the ‘60s and clinical professor at the Chicago-Kent Law Offices, now uses the system to fight the system.

Professor Richard Kling grew up witnessing first-hand the dangers of an aggressively prosecutorial government. When Kling was four years old, his father, a full-time functionary of the Communist Party of America, was investigated by the House Committee on Un-American Activities and went underground for five years to avoid federal prosecution, entrusting to his wife the care and support of their two children. With this background, it's no coincidence that Kling developed a keen awareness of injustice and has used it to become one of Chicago's most recognized and passionate defense attorneys.

"The defense attorney is the one person who stands up to the powerful government, which can take everything from your name and your freedom to your life, and says, ‘You're going to have to go through me,'" Kling explains.

"The government has to prove a crime has been committed and follow some rules and jump through some hoops in order to do so," he continues. "If they do it, the system works. If they don't, the system still works."

This is the message Kling tries to impart to the students who work with him in the Chicago-Kent Law Offices. Kling typically takes on nine to 12 clinic students each semester to help defend clients in cases that range from burglary to capital murder.

"Students learn technical skills and how to think like lawyers, how to put cases together and take them apart," Kling says of the benefits of Chicago-Kent's clinical program. "I advise my students to think like the opponent. If they do that, they will know what's going to get thrown at them and how to beat it."

Kling acknowledges that a career as a defense attorney has some built-in disadvantages, especially when defending a client accused of committing violent crimes.

"When you represent a client in a murder trial, you get the anger of the prosecutor, the anger of the judge, the anger of the public and often times the anger of the client [in pro bono cases], who perceives you're getting paid by the system and so you're going to sell them out," says Kling.

Kling also emphasizes that the defense has to be heard in a criminal justice system that can stress prosecution to a fault.

"Justice is often overlooked in favor of politics, in favor of the front-page headline," he says. "I believe judges and prosecutors need to be better educated to the fact that they are not there just to convict; they're there to bring justice. Sometimes that means not to convict."

According to Kling, over-zealous prosecution is one reason why so many Illinois Death Row inmates have been found innocent in recent years, leading to the governor's moratorium on the death penalty in Illinois and a marathon review of 142 clemency appeals to the Illinois Prisoner Review Board in late 2002. Kling, who opposes the death penalty and favored the review in concept, represented clients in two of the appeals.

"What ended up happening is that 20 years of the worst cases that ever hit the system were stuffed into a two-week review period," he says. "It was horrible for the parole board, it was horrible for the attorneys, and it was horrible for the victims. No one walked away, I think, for the better."

Kling does not pull his punches, in or out of court. His courtroom demeanor, which often consists of rolled-eyes and exasperated sighs in response to the prosecution, is sometimes interpreted as calculated to sway the jury. But Kling explains that such behavior is purely reactive.

"I get very emotionally involved in my cases, and I think it's a mistake for lawyers not to," he says. "If you don't want to be emotionally involved, go drive a truck."

Kling, whose passion for defense work shows no sign of diminishing, won't be driving long-haul routes anytime soon.

"People frequently ask how I can defend guilty people," he says. "Guilty people are really easy to represent, because if the system does what it is supposed to do – as much as I may feel a personal loss-- I can go home and sleep. It's when you represent innocent people that are potentially in danger of being convicted that you lose sleep."


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