What brought you to UIS (then Sangamon State)?
When I applied for a job here, my focus was on societal problems, civil rights and the anti-war movement. I became very excited about Sangamon State, especially the opportunity to build a new, innovative university. I find great rewards in developing programs that are consistent with my own philosophical framework; particularly in attacking problems of injustice. The Innocence Project represents the culmination of that interest.
How did the program at UIS start?
In 1998, Bill Clutter went to a conference in Chicago jointly called by Innocence Project leader Barry Scheck and the Center for Wrongful Conviction at Northwestern University. By that time, between the Innocence Project and the Center for Wrongful Conviction, there were about 78 people they had helped exonerate, many of whom were on death row across the country. Having realized what an incredibly big problem we were facing, Barry Scheck challenged the people at the conference, "You need to go back to wherever you come from and start working on this problem." So after some discussion between Bill, professor and lawyer Nancy Ford, myself and Criminal Justice Professor Rob Schehr, we began this initiative. It started very small with one Legal Studies class on wrongful conviction, working on just one or two cases.
Was there an event that led to your own commitment to the Project?
In 2001 or 2002, I remember sitting in a little auditorium at a conference in San Diego, listening to people who had been exonerated. There is nothing quite like having someone stand up in front of you and saying, "If it weren't for the work you did to get me out of prison, I would have been put to death by now." Hearing their stories-that was probably what took me to my next level. Even now, I get the same chill down my spine and tears in my eyes when I hear exonerees' stories. The experience continues to firm up my conviction to work to challenge the American criminal justice system to do better. It's gratifying that we have played a role in that, but then underneath is the frustration that nobody should have to go through what these exonerees have experienced.
How did you become director?
When Nancy Ford left, it fell upon me to direct the Project. Since I had retired from full-time teaching at UIS, I took on this responsibility without pay. For a long time I was paid only occasionally when we had some extra money as the result of our grants and contributions. Essentially, I became the pro bono director of the Project. With the receipt of a major federal grant in 2010 from the U.S. Department of Justice, I am the Executive Director of the Project, and I am now working pro bono almost full-time.
How would you describe what you do to donors?
I have essentially assumed responsibility for overseeing the direction of the program and building it, finding funds, conceptualizing where we are going, doing interviews, overseeing the staff and the students, filling out forms, filling out reports and overseeing the finances. All of that comes across my desk. What I enjoy more than that, of course, is teaching a course on wrongful conviction. We recruit students from the class to work with us on the Project. Although not a lawyer, I also get involved in the cases that we do, and I am on the national board of the Innocence Network-the organization of over 60 innocence organizations across the country and even internationally. That responsibility involves meetings around the country at least twice a year and subcommittee work, which proably averages a half day every month.
What would you say are the Project's most important non-exoneration goals?
Where would you like to see the Project in five years?
An organization that combines:
In five years, we may be addressing cases statewide or maybe even regionally; maybe even outside Illinois. I also hope in five years we'll be at a point of financial stability so that organizationally we do not have to worry any more about year-to-year financing.
What would you say to donors?
We offer you a unique opportunity to work with young people to put society on a footing where you can say with great pride that we are doing what we say we do: putting guilty people in prison and at the same time rectifying mistakes that we make. It's also an opportunity for you to support dialogue and discussion in efforts to change our system to make this a better place for everyone to live.
1998: Investigator Bill Clutter attending a conference in Chicago sponsored by the Center for Wrongful Conviction and Northwestern University.
2001: Larry Golden attended a conference in San Diego.
2002: Exoneration of Keith Harris. We were able to help him get a pardon in 2003.
2006: Jule Rea Harper (now Julie Rea) found innocent and recently received a Certificate of Innocence.
2008: Herb Whitlock was released. He and co-defendant Randy Steidl have not been technically exonerated yet. This case came to represent the corruption in the criminal justice system in Illinois.
Spring 2010: The collaboration with the University of Illinois College of Law and the Southern Illinois University Law School. By summer, the Project had two students working, by the Fall, six students from SIU and eight students from the U of I. The collaboration also involves the contribution of time from professors at each school.
Fall 2010: Received a grant (from the U.S. Department of Justice. http://inthenews.uis.edu/2010/11/uis-downstate-illinois-innocence.html), which became the next big milestone for the Project.