Looking at Leonard Goodman, you might not have a notion that he’s a member of an elite Chicago family. He could live a lavish life without working a single day. Instead, he has built a successful practice representing many defendants the justice system left behind.
Fifteen to 30 percent of his clients are represented on a pro bono basis. Most cases involve difficult appeals other lawyers would reject due to the enormous amount of work. To Goodman, who is 49, it’s important to allow everyone a fair trial, as well as provide representation to those who are financially unable to maintain their innocence.
“Even when I was a kid in school it bothered me to see injustice,” Goodman said. “Of course, I didn’t always do anything about it. Now I have the ability to help people fight injustice and it is hard sometimes to say no when such people ask for help.
Goodman’s clients include accused murderers. He defended the infamous Kenneth Hansen, when the 69-year-old man was charged for murder of three adolescent boys, 40 years after the fact. Goodman believes Hansen did not commit the murders.
“He had never been a suspect until 40 years later when all of a sudden he was arrested based on the word of paid informants who said that 20-30 years ago he told them he committed the crimes.” Goodman said. “They constructed a case against him.”
Goodman won Hansen’s an appeal, but lost the case in a retrial. Hansen died in prison at age 74. Looking back, Goodman said, “I feel like there should have been a way to win the case.”
Goodman, who grew up in the Lakeview area, never had an interest in going into law until the end of his B.A. program at Carleton College where he majored in physics and engineering. Deciding the life of a scientist wasn’t for him, he enrolled at Northwestern University Law School because it was an option that would provide him with opportunities. Once at law school, he developed an interest in criminal defense.
“I can’t say that it was a lifelong career path,” Goodman said. “I just sort of fell into it.”
After graduating from law school, he was hired at Jenner and Block, a large firm where he began his career working as a litigation associate. He mostly worked on civil cases. Eager to enter criminal law, he sought a job at a criminal defense firm. He was hired by the practice then headed by Ed Genson, Jeffrey Steinback and Terry Gillespie, three prominent defense lawyers, where he said he really started to learn about criminal work.
In 1999, he took on Christopher Raygoza, a gang member who was convicted of murdering a rival in a pizza restaurant on the Southwest Side.
“His first lawyer was incompetent, and they convicted him,” Goodman said.
Goodman filed a motion requesting authorities re-examine five fingerprints found on the restaurant’s door to see if they could be linked to a person who fit Raygoza’s description. Goodman won the appeal eight years after Raygoza was incarcerated. The prosecutors said if he pleaded guilty, he would get time served.
“Did the system work?” Goodman asked. “Not really. He did ten years for a crime he didn’t do, because the state refused to accept the possibility that they could have sent the wrong guy to prison.”
Currently, Goodman is representing Guantanamo Bay detainee Shawali Khan, in a Federal case for which he received an award from The Guantanamo Justice Center. According to Goodman, Khan and his family moved to Kandahar after a drought destroyed their farm. Less than a year after U.S. troops invaded Afghanistan, Shawali was picked up by Afghan thugs who sold him to the Americans for a bounty between $2,000 and $10,000. They claimed Shawali was running a terror cell and plotting attacks on the U.S.
“No one checked to see if the story added up,” Goodman said. “Our government just accepted the word of a bounty hunter and sent Khan to Guantanamo Bay. No corroboration, no investigation.
Goodman said the embarrassment factor comes into play.
“Our government hates to admit mistakes,” he said. “After wikileaks released the official file on Khan, it became clear the government misled the court about its evidence.”
The most recent development is that Goodman has filed a new motion for Khan’s release alleging that government lawyers committed a “fraud on the court.” As far as what Goodman hopes will come of the case, he said, “I hope to win it. I hope that they order that he be released back to Afghanistan, back to his family.”
Goodman’s associate, Melissa Matuzak, who was admitted to practice in Illinois in May 2010, has been at his firm since 2008.
“I feel incredibly fortunate to be Len’s associate and friend,” Matuzak said. “Len has integrity that cannot be compromised, and a passion for life and the law that is inspiring.”
James Jacobs, a fellow criminal defense attorney and a Cook County public defender, admires that Len has not only been successful, but that he manages to teach and be involved in the community.
“It’s very admirable. I certainly have a lot of respect for him because he doesn’t have to work at all,” Jacobs says. “And he’s chosen not only to work but to take on the hardest cases and the most unsympathetic clients.”
When you ask Leonard about his rewards, he cannot remember them offhand, answering with a casual, “They’re around here somewhere.” To him, it’s not about recognition, or about being in the spotlight, it’s about justice.
“When you do this work, you can’t really do it for the rewards. A lot of times it’s very thankless work,” he says. “A lot of people don’t understand it. It’s nice to get some recognition or a story it the paper, but you can’t really do it for glory.”