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"It's not automatic," says Chris Janku, director of programs at the bar association. "I don't want people to get false hopes."
Alan Mills, an attorney with the Uptown People's Law Center in Chicago, says the Civil Rights Legal Defense Team is "a blatant rip-off."
"We have gotten numerous complaints from prisoners throughout the state of Illinois whose families have paid the firm up to $5,000 and gotten nothing in return," says Mills, whose nonprofit organization specializes in helping inmates. He's says he's talked to several victims not named by the Office of the Chief Disciplinary Counsel. One is Theresa Worthen.
Worthen says she drove to St. Louis from Indiana, a six-hour trip, to confirm that the Civil Rights Legal Team was legit. It was a Sunday, and Piper Jesse, an employee, met her at the team's offices on Old Ballas Road. Before she paid, Worthen also called the Missouri Bar Association, which confirmed that Harris was a lawyer in good standing.
That was more than one year and $5,000 ago. To date, the Civil Rights Legal Defense Team -- which was supposed to prepare a habeas corpus petition for Worthen's boyfriend, William Hart -- hasn't filed anything in a court of law. Even with no legal help, Worthen's boyfriend is due for release from an Indiana prison in less than four months. The chances that a judge would rule on a habeas petition before Hart's prison term expires are zero, Mills says.
"If you're lucky, it would take six months," he says. "It could take a couple years."
"They took our life savings," Worthen says. "In November, I started bugging them again to see where it was at. They gave me a target date of December 3. That date came and went. Nothing ever happened. About April, John Tiller called me and said he was really fired up about the case. They wanted to file it within a week, but, of course, they needed $2,500 more to go anywhere."
Wary, Worthen says she told Tiller she could only come up with half the money. Tiller told Worthen that he needed the additional cash for travel expenses to visit Worthen's boyfriend in prison. "So I gave them $1,500," she says. "Before I sent them the rest of the money, I wanted to see the petition they were working on. They faxed it to me on April 16. I paid them the rest of the money -- it was a good petition, as far as my un-law eye thought. All they needed to do at that point was get it to the prison to get a signature."
It took the Civil Rights Legal Defense Team until late June to get the papers in the mail. Worthen says she called Tiller almost daily, begging him to get the petition to her boyfriend. She got nothing but lies, excuses and promises.
"I've been fighting with these people for two months to get it to the prison to get a signature," Worthen says. "They tell me they've mailed it, but it got lost in the mail. They overnighted it. I asked for a proof of delivery -- 'Oh, my secretary forgot to mail it.' They've just been giving me the total runaround. They told me they sent it out probably six times."
Linda Wilson, who lives in Virginia, says she sent the Civil Rights Legal Defense Team $6,000 in the fall of 2000. It took her seven months to raise the money. She had never heard the words "habeas corpus" before speaking with Tiller and Jesse, but they assured her that a habeas writ was her son's ticket out of jail. At no point, she says, did she or her son speak with Harris or any other lawyer affiliated with the Civil Rights Legal Defense Team.
By the spring of 2001, Wilson realized she'd been had. She complained to the Office of the Chief Disciplinary Counsel. It's not clear why the state office didn't name her son as one of the firm's victims in the public record, but after Wilson complained, she was contacted by the state attorney general's office, even though she hadn't called them.
A year ago, Wilson demanded a refund. No way, said Tiller. "We have no intentions of refunding anything," he wrote in an e-mail sent four hours after receiving Wilson's demand. "We will do what we said we would do if you want it filed, we were close to completion at the time of your complaint."
Tiller has changed his tune.
In a letter to Wilson sent two weeks ago, Tiller apologized and begged for another shot. "It is never too late to help and please, give us this chance," he wrote.
In fact, it is too late.
Wilson's son is now on work release and will be put on probation next month. "What you didn't do was enough to last me a lifetime," Wilson shot back in a letter to Tiller. "Sorry, Mr. Tiller, but I wouldn't trust you or the CRLDT to feed my dog."
Even when the Civil Rights Legal Defense Team did file paperwork, it was hardly the work of Perry Mason.
Jacqueline Sincoff of St. Louis says she and two friends gave the Civil Rights Legal Defense Team $1,000 to file a parole request for Dwayne Duckett, a Missouri inmate serving 80 years for burglary, attempted rape, robbery and armed criminal action.