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‘Win-at-all-costs’ Chicago law firm reaps $7.3M defending Baltimore cops in wrongful convictions

Alfred Chestnut hugs his mother Sarah after his release on Nov. 25, 2019, in Baltimore. Chestnut was one of three men incarcerated for 36 years in Maryland who were exonerated in the slaying of a Baltimore teenager after a review of their case. (Jerry Jackson/The Baltimore Sun via AP)

Alfred Chestnut hugs his mother Sarah after his release on Nov. 25, 2019, in Baltimore. Chestnut was one of three men incarcerated for 36 years in Maryland who were exonerated in the slaying of a Baltimore teenager after a review of their case. Prosecutors agreed these men were innocent in a 1983 murder, but a ‘win-at-all-costs’ Chicago law firm is going all-out to defend city officers their wrongful conviction lawsuit. (Jerry Jackson/The Baltimore Sun via AP)

Update: After press time, Baltimore’s law department provided an updated total amount paid to Nathan & Kamionski LLP since 2019: $7.3 million. This story has been updated to reflect that information.

Ron Bishop remembers what it’s like to be interrogated.

In 1983, when Bishop was just 14 years old, Baltimore police detectives pressed him and several other teenage witnesses for details about a murder at Harlem Park Junior High School using coercive tactics that state prosecutors now agree led to the wrongful convictions of three innocent men, known as the Harlem Park Three.

Now 53, Bishop recently found himself once again facing hostile questioning about the Harlem Park killing from representatives of the city of Baltimore – but this time, instead of detectives, the questions came from lawyers who are being paid millions to represent city police officers in wrongful conviction lawsuits.

“I felt like I wasn’t a witness,” Bishop said of his deposition in January. The lawyer for the police officers used a harsh and demeaning tone that Bishop said reminded him of being interrogated in the Baltimore Police Department’s homicide unit as a teen.

“I felt like I was on trial,” he said. “It felt like I was a criminal that was being cross-examined.”

The Chicago-based law firm handling these lawsuits for the city, Nathan & Kamionski LLP, has built a niche business defending law enforcement and municipalities in wrongful conviction lawsuits, a market that grew rapidly with the expansion of the innocence movement.

Lawyers who have opposed the firm and its founders in court say they are uniquely combative in their approach to these cases – and that by hiring them, Baltimore is undermining efforts to right historic wrongs perpetrated by its police department.

The city has paid the firm $7.3 million since 2019, The Daily Record found through a public records request.

The firm’s scorched-earth approach to these lawsuits raises a troubling question about the adversarial nature of the legal system: Can powerful institutions and their lawyers go too far in defending against claims of serious injustice?

Firm founders Shneur Nathan and Avi Kamionski declined to answer detailed questions from The Daily Record for this story. In an email, Nathan pointed to the firm’s success in getting one of the eight lawsuits they have handled in Baltimore thrown out by a federal judge.

City Solicitor Jim Shea defended the firm’s practices. He said Baltimore has an obligation to approach these cases aggressively in order to save taxpayer money that might otherwise be paid out in settlements.

But others said the city can choose to respond to these wrongful convictions lawsuits more humanely.

“I think it’s a bad look,” said David Jaros, the faculty director of the University of Baltimore School of Law’s new Center for Criminal Justice Reform.

“If the city wants to debate how much compensation (exonerees are) entitled to, then that’s not inappropriate,” he said. “They do have some responsibility to the taxpayers to control their costs. But I think it’s problematic to just hire attorneys and say, ‘Save us money any way you can, even if it involves trying to suggest someone who was innocent actually was guilty of the crime.’”

Though state prosecutors supported the exonerations of the Harlem Park Three (and found that the men were not even present for the murder), Nathan & Kamionski has aggressively pursued evidence that their convictions for the 1983 murder were legitimate.

"I’m no shrinking violet, and I’ve certainly dealt with my share of aggressive and forceful litigators," Michele Nethercott, the former director of the University of Baltimore Innocence Project Clinic, said of the Nathan & Kamionski firm. "But these guys just take it to a whole other level." (THE DAILY RECORD/FILE PHOTO)

“I’m no shrinking violet, and I’ve certainly dealt with my share of aggressive and forceful litigators,” Michele Nethercott, the former director of the University of Baltimore Innocence Project Clinic, said of the Nathan & Kamionski firm. “But these guys just take it to a whole other level.” (THE DAILY RECORD/FILE PHOTO)

Bishop, like the other witnesses in the case, recanted his testimony against the three men – Alfred Chestnut, Andrew Stewart and Ransom Watkins – who spent decades behind bars before a review by the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office’s Conviction Integrity Unit concluded they were innocent.

Nathan & Kamionski sought years of Bishop’s phone records, his personnel record from his employer and his decades-old transcripts from Coppin State University as part of an effort to discredit his testimony.

When Bishop was the subject of a lengthy New Yorker article about wrongful convictions, Nathan & Kamionski also tried to subpoena the reporter’s recordings of her interviews for the piece, hoping to find inconsistencies in Bishop’s story.

A judge blocked those subpoenas from moving forward. But the episode is representative of the confrontational tactics for which Nathan & Kamionski has quickly become known in Baltimore. 

“I’m no shrinking violet, and I’ve certainly dealt with my share of aggressive and forceful litigators,” said Michele Nethercott, the former director of the University of Baltimore Innocence Project Clinic. “But these guys just take it to a whole other level.”

Firm’s beginnings

Avi Kamionski and Shneur Nathan both launched their legal careers in Chicago. 

They spent several years working for the city’s Office of Corporation Counsel before moving to Hale Law LLC, a law firm that earned eye-popping sums representing Chicago in lawsuits over widespread allegations that police officers used torture to glean false confessions.

Hale Law racked up a number of serious rebukes from judges during those years.

In 2012, a federal judge found that Kamionski and Hale Law founder Andrew Hale had made a “racially motivated” attempt to keep a Black woman off a jury in a wrongful conviction case.

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In a highly publicized police torture case, the Hale firm won a favorable verdict for the city of Chicago, but the trial judge later threw out the result in part because Hale and Kamionski had made so many references to excluded evidence at trial, including brutal descriptions of a rape in which the defendant had been pardoned.

“There must be a bright line between aggressive advocacy and ‘win-at-all costs’ unethical conduct,” the judge wrote. “This bright line has been crossed by defense counsel’s repeated ill-advised actions in this case.”

The admonishment also led to a review by Chicago’s law department, but did not lead to the firm’s removal from casework.

In yet another case, a judge accused the Hale firm of making bad-faith arguments in a motion for summary judgment. The lawyers had also misstated a number of facts in their filings.

“Their attempt to mislead the court, especially in light of the plethora of errors compiled above, is offensive,” the judge wrote in that case. He also ordered the lawyers to explain why they should not be sanctioned for their behavior. The judge ultimately did not issue sanctions.

At a 2011 trial in a false arrest lawsuit against Chicago police officers, a judge warned Nathan against bringing up excluded evidence and accused him of treating the case like a game.

“I don’t know where you learned your trial practice procedures,” the judge told Nathan, according to a transcript. “I don’t know if it’s ‘Boston Legal’ or anything else, sir. I’ve been teaching trial litigation for more than 20 years, so take this to heed. If you keep going this way, you’re going to lose your license. …

“In 19 years, I haven’t had this kind of problem with an attorney, and I’m not going to sit here and take it,” the judge said.

G. Flint Taylor, a Chicago civil rights lawyer who has handled many high-profile police brutality cases, said the Hale firm was ideologically opposed to the concept of wrongful convictions and to the idea that police officers tortured suspects.

“The Hale firm made it into that category, in my experience, of lawyers who went that extra mile in terms of their ruthlessness and flaunting of convention in terms of how lawyers deal with each other and also in dealing fast and loose with the rules,” Taylor said.

Nathan and Kamionski left Hale Law in 2017 to start their own firm. Hale sued soon after, claiming that the two men had met with Chicago’s law department behind his back in order to take some of the city’s business with them.

The lawsuit settled in 2018, court records show. Hale did not return a message seeking comment.

Nathan & Kamionski have since opened law offices in Baltimore and, more recently, in Detroit, where they are also defending against wrongful conviction lawsuits. They also continue to handle cases in Chicago.

“It’s troubling that these guys went on the road, so to speak, and took their nasty little game east,” Taylor said.

Landing in Baltimore

Nathan & Kamionski LLP has had some major successes since opening a branch in Baltimore in 2019. The firm has handled eight wrongful conviction cases on behalf of Baltimore officers, court records show.

Last year, a federal judge tossed a lawsuit brought by Tony DeWitt after the firm alleged that he had forged a police memo and tried to bribe witnesses to win his freedom in a 2002 murder case.

U.S. District Judge Deborah Chasanow ordered DeWitt to pay the city’s attorney’s fees in a scathing ruling: “In one fell swoop Plaintiff’s actions undermined the public confidence in the integrity of law enforcement and the competence of state and federal courts,” she wrote.

Part of Nathan & Kamionski’s success in the DeWitt case came from listening to recorded prison phone calls. The lawyers have formed a company called Pointed Discovery that offers “expedited prison call review services” to help clients build cases.

Another wrongful conviction case settled for $125,000 in 2020 after the firm accused the exoneree, Garreth Parks, of fabricating a police officer’s notes to create exculpatory evidence. Park’s lawyers disputed that the document was a fraud.

DeWitt’s and Parks’ cases did not go through the Conviction Integrity Unit, which Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby launched in 2015 to review claims of actual innocence. 

In contrast, most of the other wrongful conviction lawsuits being opposed by Nathan & Kamionski did go through the Conviction Integrity Unit’s re-investigation process. These cases involve exonerations that are undisputed – meaning state prosecutors, after reviewing the conviction, agreed that the defendant was likely innocent of the crime and supported his release from prison.

Even in these undisputed cases, Nathan & Kamionski has pursued explosive claims of fraud and deception, forcing exonerees to re-prove their innocence in order to seek financial compensation for the alleged civil rights violations that led to their wrongful convictions.

In one Baltimore lawsuit, the firm’s lawyers implied that Nethercott, the former Innocent Project director, or another member of the plaintiff’s legal team had tampered with evidence to build a stronger case against the police – though the evidence in question had little connection to the wrongful conviction.

After an extensive back-and-forth over the accusation, during which Nethercott had to be deposed twice, the lawsuit still settled for $8 million.

Nancy Forster, who served as Maryland's top public defender for five years in the late 2000s, says city officials should have been aware of Nathan & Kamionski’s ‘outrageous’ behavior in previous cases and avoided hiring the firm. The firm has accused exoneree Jerome Johnson and his former lawyer, Forster, of using a false affidavit to win his freedom. (THE DAILY RECORD/FILE PHOTO)

Nancy Forster, who served as Maryland’s top public defender for five years in the late 2000s, says city officials should have been aware of Nathan & Kamionski’s ‘outrageous’ behavior in previous cases and avoided hiring the firm. The firm has accused exoneree Jerome Johnson and his former lawyer, Forster, of using a false affidavit to win his freedom, a claim Forster calls ‘libelous.’ Here, she is shown hugging Johnson upon his release from prison in 2018. (THE DAILY RECORD/FILE PHOTO)

In my judgment, they were very reckless with the allegations,” Nethercott said. “They’ll just fling any accusation, and they don’t seem at all concerned with making sure that they have a good-faith basis for it.”

In an ongoing lawsuit, the firm has accused exoneree Jerome Johnson and his former lawyer, Nancy Forster, of using a false affidavit to win his freedom.

The accusations are untrue, Forster and Johnson’s lawyers say: While the decades-old affidavit was indeed false, the Conviction Integrity Unit knew that from the start and disregarded the document when it investigated Johnson’s innocence claim, according to court filings.

Forster, who served as Maryland’s top public defender for five years in the late 2000s, called the firm’s claims “libelous” and said its lawyers’ “outrageous” behavior in previous cases should have warned off Baltimore officials, including Shea, the city solicitor.

“The people of Baltimore, especially those who are wrongfully convicted and spend decades in jail, deserve better from Mr. Shea,” Forster said. “This firm is an embarrassment.”

‘A balance here’

In an interview, Shea defended the firm and pointed to the lawyers’ win in the DeWitt forgery case. Shea said he was unaware of any complaints about the firm’s handling of cases.

"There's a balance there, and our job, honestly, is not to make a policy decision that the police were bad and the plaintiffs are good, and that we should reward them," said City Solicitor Jim Shea. "That's not our job. Our job is to zealously represent our client." (THE DAILY RECORD/FILE PHOTO)

“There’s a balance there, and our job, honestly, is not to make a policy decision that the police were bad and the plaintiffs are good, and that we should reward them,” said City Solicitor Jim Shea. “That’s not our job. Our job is to zealously represent our client.” (THE DAILY RECORD/FILE PHOTO)

“There’s a balance there, and our job, honestly, is not to make a policy decision that the police were bad and the plaintiffs are good, and that we should reward them,” Shea said. “That’s not our job. Our job is to zealously represent our client.”

The firm’s hourly rate is also “less than what is typically charged in the market,” Shea said. After The Daily Record’s interview with Shea, the law department said Nathan & Kamionski billed at a rate of $250 per hour.

Details of the law department’s decision to hire Nathan & Kamionski are largely secret because legal contracts are not subject to public review under city procurement rules. The law department declined to provide a copy of its contract with the firm.

Former City Solicitor Andre Davis, who selected the firm during his time in the office, said Nathan and Kamionski approached the law department after the city suffered a $15 million loss in a wrongful conviction case that went to trial in 2017. They offered to work on cases stemming from the corrupt Gun Trace Task Force, according to Davis, but the city ultimately hired them to represent police officers in wrongful conviction lawsuits.

Davis also said the law department spoke with people in Chicago, including members of the city’s law office, before hiring the firm and received positive reports.

“I never heard anything to suggest that they behaved inappropriately or in an unprofessional way,” Davis said. “As far as aggressiveness is concerned, I think obviously any lawyer can go too far, but in my mind, in litigation, aggressive representation is just another way of saying zealous representation, and that’s what every litigant is entitled to.”

"As far as aggressiveness is concerned, I think obviously any lawyer can go too far, but in my mind, in litigation, aggressive representation is just another way of saying zealous representation, and that's what every litigant is entitled to," said former City Solicitor Andre Davis, who hired Nathan & Kamionski to handle lawsuits against city police filed by exonerees. (THE DAILY RECORD/FILE PHOTO)

“As far as aggressiveness is concerned, I think obviously any lawyer can go too far, but in my mind, in litigation, aggressive representation is just another way of saying zealous representation, and that’s what every litigant is entitled to,” said former City Solicitor Andre Davis, who hired Nathan & Kamionski to handle lawsuits against city police filed by exonerees. (THE DAILY RECORD/FILE PHOTO)

Davis said it is unfair to criticize the city for its defense of these cases when it is policymakers who have forced exonerees to use lawsuits, rather than a less adversarial system, to win money for wrongful convictions.

Lawmakers in Maryland have offered one alternative. Under the Walter Lomax Act, which took effect in 2021, exonerees can file compensation claims with the state for the time they lost in prison. Exonerees who also win money through a lawsuit are required to reimburse the state for that amount.

In an email, Nathan declined to answer questions from The Daily Record, citing ongoing litigation, but pointed to the firm’s victory in the DeWitt forgery case.

“As you are aware, in March of 2021, Federal District Court Judge Deborah Chasanow granted a motion to dismiss filed by my firm after we uncovered evidence that the plaintiff who contended he was wrongfully convicted actually used a fraudulent document and offered to pay a witness when he successfully overturned his murder conviction and then sued the police,” Nathan wrote.

“Given that there is pending litigation, it would be inappropriate for me to comment further at this time.”

‘Pay the victims’

Bishop, the witness in the Harlem Park Three lawsuit, said the city should handle wrongful conviction cases with greater sensitivity for both exonerees and, as in his case, witnesses who were coerced into giving false testimony.

“Pay the victims and their families right away instead of paying law firms to do shabby work and harass innocent witnesses,” Bishop said.

As a condition of interviewing Bishop, The Daily Record agreed not to ask questions about the underlying case involving the Harlem Park Three because their lawsuit is still pending. Bishop only spoke about his experience being deposed by Kamionski.

Bishop felt he was being set up to say something untrue during his deposition. Kamionski was disrespectful at times during the hours-long questioning, Bishop said, and asked misleading questions in an effort to trip up Bishop when he answered.

“It’s almost like reliving the 14-year-old Ron Bishop again,” Bishop said. “This is why witnesses don’t come forward.”

Kobie Flowers, a lawyer at Brown, Goldstein & Levy who is representing the Harlem Park Three in their lawsuit, said paying millions of dollars to such an aggressive law firm sends the wrong message.

“In the age of mass incarceration and post-George Floyd, spending $5.3 million to defend wrongful conviction cases suggests that Baltimore has failed to meet the moment,” Flowers said. “Why isn’t the city using that money to solve the problem of wrongful convictions?”