Friday, May 8, 2009

UIS Innocence Project to hold awards reception

The Downstate Illinois Innocence Project, housed in the Institute for Legal, Legislative and Policy Studies at the University of Illinois at Springfield, will hold the Defenders of the Innocent Awards Reception from 5 to 7 p.m. on Monday, May 18, at the Governor’s Mansion in Springfield. The event is open to the public; however, reservations are required.

The Downstate Illinois Innocence Project works to assist the wrongfully convicted by providing resources for investigation and research, and to develop policy proposals that would help prevent the conviction of innocent persons in the future. This awards reception is the second annual event to recognize individuals and organizations who have worked to help achieve those goals.

The featured speaker at the reception will be Larry Marshall, who founded the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Bluhm Legal Clinic at Northwestern University Law School. Marshall’s work on death penalty exoneration cases led to reforms in the death penalty process in Illinois.

Springfield criminal defense attorney Michael Metnick will be honored with a Defender of the Innocent Award for his lifetime achievement in the defense of the innocent. During his career, Metnick devoted pro bono representation in the defense of two clients who had been sentenced to death for crimes they didn’t commit.

In 1988, Metnick undertook the retrial of Alejandro Hernandez, who was set free in 1995 after being convicted in the high-profile murder of Jeanine Nicarico of Naperville. That case, also involving Rolando Cruz, was one of the major inspirations for the innocence movement in Illinois and the nation.

In 1992, Metnick volunteered his services in the post-conviction representation of Randy Steidl, freed in 2004, after being convicted of the murder of Dyke and Karen Rhodes in Paris, Illinois in 1989.

Bill Clutter, the Project’s director of investigations, who worked with Metnick on both cases, said, “Mike Metnick’s heart and soul went into these cases with great passion and commitment. His determination to fight for his clients’ lives is the reason they are free today. He is a true champion of justice and deserves this recognition.”

The event will also honor the Dominican Sisters of Springfield, whose charitable support was instrumental in the formation of the Downstate Illinois Innocence Project. The Dominican Sisters of Springfield have devoted themselves to work in opposition to the death penalty.

Innocence Project Director Larry Golden, who has worked with the Dominican Sisters on a number of social justice projects, noted “The Sisters have a commitment to social justice unequaled in our community. They lead through their actions as well as their teaching. While they don’t seek publicity, these awards are one way their contributions can be recognized.”

Tickets are $100 and will be available at the door, or reservations may be made in advance by calling 217/206-7989.

For more information, contact Golden at 217/553-7171.