Out of Africa
Thomas Geraghty and his students fight for truth, justice, but not necessarily the American way
Published in 2006 Illinois Super Lawyers magazine
on January 11, 2006
Updated on April 4, 2017
“The place looked a lot like a concentration camp,” says David Hamsher, a Northwestern law student. He is describing a bare room, 30 feet by 15 feet, housing more than 100 people awaiting trial at a prison in Malawi in southeast Africa. “Each prisoner was sitting cross-legged on the floor directly next to another prisoner,” he says. “Apparently the prisoners sleep sitting up or like sardines on the floor. The room reeked of urine. TB, HIV and malaria all run rampant in the prison. Their daily diet consists of one bowl of cornmeal once a day. The warden genuinely wanted to improve the conditions.”
It was professor Thomas Geraghty who led his Northwestern law students, including Hamsher, to Africa in 2004 to help leaders from 22 African countries improve their legal systems. The students helped create a document African officials presented to the United Nations Congress on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice.
“When you face problems as basic as [the prison conditions],” Geraghty says, “you see the challenge to maintain the legal system. Our students go abroad and see that the resources are so meager they scratch their heads. They see it as a transformative experience. You become less judgmental. We’re extremely privileged. If we want other countries to have a legal system like we do, we have to devote a lot more resources to it.”
The students saw an extreme shortage of trained attorneys and a need for a system to send paralegals into prisons to determine who should petition to be released. “It’s a cost-effective way to track prisoners and get legal services to people who will never see a lawyer,” Geraghty says.
The Malawi project was one of many that have sprung from Northwestern’s International Team Project, which has sent students to study legal issues in countries like Vietnam, Cuba, China and Uganda.
Geraghty became interested in helping Africans while he was in college. His friends suggested a project called Operation Crossroads Africa, a precursor to the Peace Corps. He joined Crossroads and spent a summer in Chad. Geraghty also lived in Ethiopia for a year, where he studied the legal system. He has contributed to the legal program at Addis Ababa University in Ethiopia, and a few Ethiopian professors have visited his classes in Chicago.
The image of African street children sticks with Geraghty. “You wonder how they can possibly survive under those conditions and be so bright, energetic and have such positive attitudes about life,” he says. “You’re inspired by their resilience and courage.”
Geraghty downplays his impact on Africans, preferring to praise those who live there and work every day to build the legal systems. He also doesn’t shove American jurisprudence down their throats. “I tell my students, ‘You have to be careful about coming in as a sort of legal imperialist, as if you have all the answers.’”
A champion for juvenile justice stateside as well, Geraghty is a trial attorney and director of the Bluhm Legal Clinic at Northwestern. The clinic plays a key role in reforming the juvenile justice system and exonerating death row inmates.
“At school,” Hamsher says, “Tom keeps up with dozens of cases, argues some of them, keeps in touch with hundreds of students past and present, writes articles and book reviews and does all of them exceedingly well. I have immense respect for his knowledge of local and international law and his untiring dedication to imparting his wisdom and passion to students.”
When not dealing with heavy topics, Geraghty unwinds playing golf or tennis. “I like carpentry and spending time with my family,” including wife, Diane, and four grown children, all attorneys or law students. “But we love the work we do in Africa. It really isn’t a strain; it’s a privilege.”