Five years ago, Kimberly Corral was a recently minted attorney with a passion for justice. Working as a solo practitioner on criminal justice cases, she received a call from Ru-El Sailor that would begin a five-year representation that would culminate in exonerating a man who spent 15 years in a prison for a murder he did not commit.
Sailor reached out to Corral, a 2012 graduate of Cleveland State University’s Cleveland Marshall College of Law, 10 years into his sentence for a 2003 murder conviction. The details of Sailor’s conviction were peculiar at the time. No physical evidence ever tied Sailor to Omar Clark's death. He was not associated with the murder for months until Cordell Hubbard, the other person eventually convicted in Clark’s murder, filed a notice of alibi stating that he was with Sailor that night. As such, he was brought to trial less than five weeks after his arrest. Only one of three witnesses identified Sailor as being at the scene and the other victim in the case recognized Sailor days after initially stating he could not identify the shooter. During a post-conviction sentencing hearing, Hubbard declared that Sailor was innocent, and told the judge that his accomplice was a man named Will Sizemore.
Hubbard’s confession and additional witness statements still had not been enough to get Sailor a new day in court. When Corral received the call, Sailor had just lost an appeal of the denial of a Motion for Leave to File a New Trial Motion and was procedurally exhausted. Despite this being an “impossible case” which many other lawyers had turned down, Corral took up Sailor’s defense.
“When (Ru-El) told me on the phone that ‘someone else has admitted to these murders,’ I naively thought there had to be something we could do about that without knowing how difficult the post-conviction process really is,” explained Corral.
Corral turned to the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office’s then newly established Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU), designed to review cases of those who maintain their innocence. They applied to the unit on two separate occasions, and were denied both times. Remaining diligent, Corral and Ru-El’s finance Amy Spence teamed with the Ohio Innocence Project and fought on. They highlighted the fact that the CIU had failed to exonerate anyone since its creation and, during the next election cycle, were able to secure a commitment from soon-to-be-elected Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Michael O'Malley on how he would treat cases such as Sailor’s. True to his word, O’Malley’s office accepted the Sailor case on their third filing and conducted a thorough 15-month investigation, leading to Sailor’s exoneration and release in March 2018. It was the first case Cuyahoga County’s Conviction Integrity Unit had overturned stemming from a convict’s application.
Corral had been interested in righting wrongs when she applied to law school and Cleveland-Marshall’s slogan of ‘Learn Law. Live Justice” has rung true to her ever since.
“Hearing that theme repeated enough, I realized what was happening in this case was not justice,” said Corral. “The court’s constant inability to address its own mistakes was an ongoing injustice. So at every point when it seemed like there was nothing else to do, we tried something else, because I was unwilling to call my client who deserved justice and say ‘there’s nothing else I can do’.”
The case and Corral’s representation have received substantial local and national media attention in recent weeks and she has received an uptick of calls from people looking for access to post-conviction release. It is a challenging area of law, due to a lack of resources for potential clients and the difficulty of overcoming systemic push back. But Corral remains willing to fight wrongful convictions and prevent them from occurring in the first place through her growing criminal and capital practice with Baioni Corral, LLP.
Corral is active in the C|M|LAW community and has come back to the law school on several occasions to talk with recently admitted and first-year law students. Her message: always take the path that most interests them.
“I’ve generally taken the most interesting path to me, which has led to a practice that is engaging, interesting and constantly growing and changing,” explained Corral. “Whatever your interests are, I think if you constantly make those choices it will inevitably lead you to a career that is rewarding and meaningful.”
“I would choose C|M|LAW again because they supported me at every corner, even if there wasn’t an existing path in whatever I wanted to do,” she continued. “That means a lot to me that (C|M|LAW is) educating students in mass but is very much providing an individualized education.”
Based on that philosophy, it is no surprise that Corral’s unique path traces back to her journey to law school. She is a graduate of the Cleveland Institute of Art where she was interested in painting and then shifted to industrial design. But she could not find a job that gave her the opportunity to pursue the social justice work she desired. Stuck in a position she describes as “making things that were going to go into a landfill,” she decided to drop everything and engage in a nine-week cross-country bicycle trip as part of Bike Across America. During the trip, which included stops in many urban communities and rural communities experiencing various social hardships, she rode with several Yale University students who were going on to attend law school, and was inspired to pursue law school herself.
“That trip introduced me to this sort of emboldened way of thinking, ‘I can fix this, I can solve this,’ which is how everyone on that trip approached problems,” said Corral. “Most of them were going on to law school as a means of solving injustices and I realized I could do the same.”
Due to the time constraints of her caseload and raising a family, Corral has been forced to put her artistic work on the backburner, but she plans to one day return to the canvas to produce a series of art pieces that capture her experience as a lawyer. In the meantime her can-do-anything attitude ─ that has led to experiences such as traveling to Alaska as a law student for a semester working as a public defender and taking up Brazilian Jiu Jitsu as a stress reliving hobby while studying for the bar exam ─ lives on and was paramount in her fight to free an innocent man.