CHICAGO — Dante Brown waited more than ten years for a judge to reconsider the life-without-parole sentence he received for a double murder in Chicago in 2009.
The case eventually found its way to Judge Michael McHale, who, on November 17, granted Brown a new sentencing hearing. The state, represented by Asst. State’s Attorney Michelle Mbekeani, had agreed with Brown’s defense team that a new hearing should be held, McHale’s order said.
Any relief Brown may have felt upon hearing McHale’s decision was short-lived.
McHale vacated his own order on December 8 after learning that Mbekeani, the head of the Cook County state’s attorney’s office Conviction Review Unit, appeared to operate a for-profit business linking inmates with wrongful conviction claims with private attorneys. He had read about it on City Wire the day before.
The judge said Brown’s case would not proceed until he knew more about Mbekeani’s side hustle.
Mbekeani spoke with us about the company, PeriodSentence.com, a couple of days later, saying it wasn’t a functioning company. It was an idea, a class project she had at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.
“The software we envisioned isn’t even built fully,” Mbekeani said, adding that the company hadn’t even been legally formed.
On Monday, all of the parties were back in court, as first reported by Martin Prieb, an author and former Chicago police officer.
Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx’s top deputy, Risa Lanier, joined Mbekeani for the hearing, which more closely resembled a deposition of Mbekeani from the bench.
The judge had read our story.
“You were quoted as saying, Period is not a real business. Is that correct?” McHale asked. “You explained that was merely a concept that you had developed last spring for that same business class mentioned before. Correct?”
“Correct,” replied Mbekeani to both questions.
“You told the CWB reporter that the company had never been legally formed, right?” McHale continued.
“Period? Yeah, Period. Not legally formed, correct,” Mbekeani replied.
After many more questions, including several about the company website, which McHale said he printed out before it was taken offline, the judge revealed that he found active Articles of Incorporation for a company called Due Tech Process Corporation, previously known as Period.
McHale said that Mbekeani is listed as the company’s CEO, president, director, and registered agent.
The judge wasn’t having Mbekeani’s arguments on the topic.
“You’re — you’re fudging, and that’s fine. You’re an attorney, so I expect that,” the judge offered.
“Based on all the information that I see here, I conclude that you are, indeed, running a for-profit corporation, registered in the state of Illinois with the purpose that involves you spending your time assisting incarcerated defendants and their defense attorneys,” McHale announced. “It presents a very disturbing appearance of impropriety in the form of a conflict.”
“A prosecutor takes an oath to be an advocate of the victims of crimes, and families of the victims of crime. Our criminal courts work as an adversarial system. We have defense attorneys representing the accused on one side, and we’re supposed to have a prosecutor representing the People on the other,” the judge explained. “When those roles become entangled and blurred, as they most certainly were in this case, the public loses trust and confidence in our criminal justice system. It creates an appearance that something unethical is occurring.”
“You’re off the case,” McHale concluded.
He saved a few words for Mbekeani’s boss, Kim Foxx, though: “So, to some degree, I do sympathize with you, counsel, because in my opinion, Ms. Foxx basically set you up for failure because this was such a blatantly obvious conflict of interest that I find it shocking that she didn’t see it coming. But, indeed, as we’ve seen before, Ms. Foxx’s knowledge of conflicts law is not the best.”
In a written order after the hearing, McHale called Mbekeani’s responses to his questions “duplicitous, incomplete, evasive and untruthful.”
“In this court’s 17 years on the bench and 32 years working in the criminal justice system, it has never seen such manipulative efforts used before a judge in open court to such a degree,” McHale continued. He barred Mbekeani from ever representing the state in his courtroom again.
The judge said he even considered appointing a special prosecutor to handle Brown’s case but determined that other attorneys in the Conviction Review Unit were fit for the job.
When the parties reconvene next month, Assistant State’s Attorney Linda Walls will represent the people.
Foxx stands by Mbekeani
The state’s attorney’s office is standing by Mbekeani, releasing this statement to CWBChicago on Thursday morning:
Michelle Mbekeani’s leadership of the Conviction Review Unit is anchored in her unparalleled experience, deep knowledge, and fervent dedication to justice reform. Her extensive legal advocacy and reform work make her ideally suited for this pivotal role. The concerns raised about a potential conflict of interest with her university-level practicum project are unfounded and detract from our critical mission.
Casting doubt on Michelle’s commitment and integrity leads to significant delays in our work, which have severe consequences – not only prolonging the wrongful incarceration of innocent individuals but also impeding the healing and closure needed by victims and their families. Our commitment to addressing historical wrongs of the past is unwavering. Under State’s Attorney Kim Foxx’s leadership, this office has worked tirelessly to overturn 246 wrongful convictions, and we remain focused on this vital task. Due to our commitment, Illinois has led the nation five out of the past six years in exonerations.
Michelle’s academic project, which centers on due process for incarcerated individuals, underscores the crucial societal need to support and rehabilitate those unjustly affected by our justice system. We are immensely proud to have Michelle, a professional so deeply committed to rectifying historical inequities, leading the charge against corruption and restoring trust in our legal processes.
Who is Dante Brown?
A jury found Brown guilty of two counts of murder in a double homicide that occurred on October 6, 2003. An appellate court ruling in the case lays out more details.
In a recent filing by his attorney, Gregory Sygert of the Northwestern University School of Law, said Brown was convicted under the theory of accountability, meaning someone else committed the murders, but Brown was accused of some other involvement.
In handwritten appeals sent from his cell at the Stateville Correctional Center, Brown has claimed that a Chicago police detective beat him with a thick phone book on the head and arms until he confessed.
The detective “tortured me into a false confession,” Brown wrote in one appeal, saying he told his trial attorney about the beatings. In a later appeal, he claimed that authorities withheld evidence.
Sygert amended Brown’s pro se filings in November with a different argument: Brown was sentenced to life without parole in 2009 at the age of 19 because state law didn’t allow for anything less.
In a ten-page transcript of Brown’s sentencing hearing, Judge James Linn mentioned eight times that he didn’t have the authority to sentence Brown to anything less than the law required, Sygert’s filing said.
The judge acknowledged that Brown’s post-conviction filings contained “wisdom” and compelling arguments, none of which could be considered because the law made a life sentence mandatory, said Sygert.
“The Supreme Court has spoken, and I absolutely must follow the orders of the Supreme Court,” Linn said once, according to Sygert.
“Again, my hands are tied. I must follow the law as it is. I will follow the law,” Linn offered in a second instance.
Sygert’s filing argued that “over 14 years later, the world Judge Linn commented on has changed significantly,” and both federal and Illinois courts now recognize “that sentencing juveniles and emerging adults to mandatory life sentences without consideration of factors that reduce their culpability is unconstitutional.”
The case continues in McHale’s courtroom on February 20.