The Downstate Illinois Innocence Project at the University of Illinois Springfield will celebrate its 10 year anniversary on Monday, May 16, 2011 with an awards reception from 5-7 p.m. at the Inn at 835 (835 South Second St., Springfield).
Four individuals will receive this year’s Defenders of the Innocent Awards: U.S. Senator Richard Durbin (D-Ill) for his support for the growth and development of the project's work on behalf of the innocent; former State Police Crime Scene investigator Alva Busch for his work exonerating Belleville resident Keith Harris; true crime author Diane Fanning, whose book about a Texas serial killer helped exonerate Julie Rea Harper of Lawrenceville; and former State Police Investigation Commander Michale Callahan (author of Too Politically Sensitive) whose efforts to re-investigate a Paris, Ill. double murder case helped exonerate Herb Whitlock. Keith Harris, Julie Rea, and Herb Whitlock will each be attending to present the awards.
“This will be a celebration for all those who have helped make the last ten years a success,” said Larry Golden, one of the founding members of the project. The project was officially launched in Jan. 2001. “We started this as a class on wrongful convictions”, said Golden.
The idea to create the project was brought to Golden and Nancy Ford, former Interim Director of the Institute for Legal and Policy Studies by UIS Legal Studies graduate Bill Clutter. Clutter now works as a private investigator and currently serves as director of investigations for the Innocence Project. Golden and Clutter teamed up to teach the first class.
“In the beginning we had no money, no staff attorneys, we weren’t a law school, but by the end of the semester we had our first exoneree Keith Harris walk out of prison a free man,” said Clutter.
Ballistic evidence that exonerated Keith Harris had been developed by a state police crime scene investigator in 1978, a year after Harris was convicted. This also led to a confession by the person who actually committed the crime. Yet, Harris remained in prison another two decades.
“When I began the class I was shocked,” said former student, Amanda Ade-Harlow, now a criminal defense attorney in Taylorville. She was one of the students who signed up for the first class that began investigating the Harris case. “How does this happen that an innocent person can remain in prison in the face of all that evidence,” she said.
The next exoneration came in 2006, with the release of Julie Rea. She served two and a half years in prison before author Diane Fanning released her first true crime book Through the Window: The Terrifying True Story of Cross-Country Killer Tommy Lynn Sells. The book detailed the confession of a child serial killer on death row in Texas who admitted committing the murder of Rea’s ten year-old son, Joel. The investigation of the project corroborated the confession with witnesses who placed Sells in Lawrenceville at time of the murder.
Former student Debra Stetyick was one of the students who helped investigate the case. “Taking that class really changed the way I look at our justice system,” said Stetyick. “The fact that something like that could happen horrified me.”
In Jan. 2008, Herb Whitlock was released from a life sentence after serving 22 years. The 4th District Appellate Court cited the investigation of the project in its opinion that vacated Whitlock’s conviction. Former student, Jamie Crain participated in the interview that was mentioned in the appellate court opinion. “It was one of the greatest experiences I ever had--to know that my work helped free an innocent man,” said Crain.
A new partnership that began last year between UIS, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign College of Law, and Southern Illinois Law School will be recognized during the 10th anniversary event. Awards will be given to the graduating law students who worked on project cases starting last summer. A federal grant made it possible for the project to hire its first staff attorney John Hanlon in the position of Legal Director. Hanlon is leading the effort to screen cases for DNA testing as part of the federal grant.
“I really look forward to what should be a celebration of things to come,” said Hanlon. “Look at what was accomplished over the last ten years with very few resources to work with. Imagine the possibilities that lay ahead.”
If you are interested in attending or sponsoring the event please call 217/206-7989 or register online at www.uis.edu/innocenceproject. A tax-deductible donation of $100 is encouraged for those interested in purchasing tickets.