SPRINGFIELD – The Downstate Illinois Innocence Project at the University of Illinois at Springfield has received the Award of Excellence presented by the Illinois Public Defender Association. UIS Chancellor Richard Ringeisen and Provost Harry Berman received the award from IPDA President Stephen Richards in ceremonies held June 21 at UIS.
Richards noted that the award was made "in recognition and sincere appreciation of the Project's outstanding service to the Illinois legal community and for untiring advocacy in the fight for fairness and justice for innocent citizens who have been wrongfully convicted."
The Downstate Illinois Innocence Project is housed in UIS' Institute for Legal, Legislative, and Policy Studies and has as its mission providing assistance to attorneys who represent downstate inmates convicted of crimes they did not commit and helping prevent conviction of innocent persons in the future.
"Coming at a time when the national Innocence Project has achieved more than 200 DNA exonerations, it is especially important for the Downstate Illinois Innocence Project and the university to receive this recognition from lawyers on the front lines, defending those who are in prison and who might be wrongfully convicted," said Larry Golden, a co-director of the Project and UIS emeritus professor of Political Studies and Legal Studies.
Golden – along with colleagues Nancy Ford, UIS professor of Legal Studies, and private investigator Bill Clutter – founded the UIS innocence project in 2000. The project is unique in its organization and its involvement of undergraduate students from across academic disciplines in investigating cases. The Project is an active participant in the National Innocence Network.
The Project's successes to date include assisting in the exonerations of Keith Harris and Julie Rea Harper. Harris spent 22 years in prison in spite of the fact that two people subsequently confessed to the crime for which he was convicted and that evidence had emerged that supported his claim of innocence. He received a full pardon in 2003. Harper, who was convicted of murdering her son despite the lack of direct evidence tying her to the crime, was found innocent in a retrial last year that incorporated much evidence generated by the Project's staff and students.
The Illinois Public Defender Association is involved in efforts to enact caseload standards, to ensure fair funding for public defender offices, to review and suggest amendments to criminal and juvenile bills in the legislature, and to develop model rules and statutes to standardize appointment procedures for public defenders. The association also regularly hosts seminars for public defenders and court-appointed counsel throughout the state. More information about IDPA is available at www.state.il.us/defender/ipda.html.For more information on the Downstate Illinois Innocence Project, contact Golden at 217/553-7171.