SPRINGFIELD -- Students and staff of the Downstate Illinois Innocence Project at the University of Illinois at Springfield were instrumental in uncovering new evidence that helped attorneys for Herbert Whitlock, currently serving a life sentence for murder, in their successful bid for a new trial. Attorney General Lisa Madigan recently announced that she will not challenge an appellate court decision overturning Whitlock's conviction for the 1986 murder of Dyke and Karen Rhoads.
Richard King and Suzanna Ortiz from the Kent College of Law were assisted in the post-conviction investigation by students in a Wrongful Convictions class taught by UIS Professor Larry Golden. Under the direction of Bill Clutter, director of investigations for the Innocence Project, the students interviewed witnesses and helped prepare for the evidentiary hearing that was conducted over several weeks in March and April 2005.
"The Downstate Illinois Innocence Project applauds Attorney General Madigan's decision not to challenge the appellate court's ruling," said Golden.
In its September 8 decision granting the new trial, the Fourth District Appellate Court ruled that Whitlock had received ineffective representation at his first trial and that the prosecutor had suppressed evidence favorable to Whitlock's defense. The decision by the Attorney General means that the Appellate Prosecutor's office must now decide whether to retry Whitlock or release him. Whitlock's co-defendant, Randy Steidl, was released from death row in 2004.
"It would fly in the face of any sense of fairness and justice for the state to continue to pursue this prosecution," said Clutter, who had worked on the cases of Steidl and Whitlock for many years. "This is a classic case of wrongful conviction on flimsy and manufactured evidence, witnesses who have recanted, and a defense without the resources to help these individuals prove their innocence."
The UIS students working with Clutter uncovered laboratory notes of a forensic scientist that helped to discredit a key witness who testified in Whitlock's trial in 1987. The court held that the State's failure to produce the lab notes resulted in the suppression of evidence that was favorable to Whitlock's defense and violated his right to a fair trial.
Clutter had also worked to develop forensic evidence that was used earlier in successful efforts to free Steidl.
The Downstate Illinois Innocence Project is affiliated with the Institute for Legal, Legislative, and Policy Studies at UIS and has been involved in the cases of several individuals, including Keith Harris and Julie Rea Harper, who have been wrongfully convicted. Students working with the project assist Clutter in the investigation of cases that may involve actual innocence.
For more information about the Downstate Illinois Innocence Project, contact Golden at 553-7171 or Clutter at 899-4353.