Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Downstate Innocence Project awards honor those fighting for justice

The Downstate Illinois Innocence Project, housed at the University of Illinois Springfield held its third Defenders of the Innocent Awards Reception on May 24 at the Governor’s Mansion in Springfield.

“Tonight is our celebration. It is a way for us to honor those folks (who have helped the program) and raise support,” said Larry Golden, project director.

The featured guest was Rolando Cruz, who along with his co-defendant Alejandro Hernandez, was wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death for the brutal murder of 10-year-old Jeanine Nicarico of Naperville in 1983.

Cruz, along with his three children handed out Profiles in Courage Awards to the investigators who helped set him free. Former Assistant Attorney General Mary Brigid Hayes, former DuPage County Sheriff John Sam and former Illinois State Police Commander Edward Cisowski each received the award.

“It’s a real big deal to us because my kids can thank them now and want to thank them,” said Cruz.

A Pro Bono Award was also handed out to Feldman, Wasser, Draper & Cox for their work on the Thomas McMillen case in Sangamon County. The award was also given to Gates, Wise & Schlosser, P.C. for their work on the Slover family murder case in Decatur.

The Downstate Illinois Innocence Project works to assist the wrongfully convicted and to develop policy proposals that would help prevent the conviction of innocent persons in the future.

The project benefits UIS students by allowing them to work on real criminal cases and get experience outside the classroom.

“I’m actually looking at one case file right now to decide if we want to take a case. I had to go through 100 pages of files and do some research on it,” said Brett Walker, a UIS student intern on the project.

The project relies on private donations to cover the cost of their investigations, which can easily reach thousands of dollars.

The Innocence Project will celebrate its 10th anniversary next year and has plans for a celebration, along with launching new initiatives.

For more information visit the Innocence Project website at www.uis.edu/innocenceproject/

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