FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE Date: January 15, 2003 Contact: Nancy Ford, 206-6358 (work)
Contact: Bill Clutter, 528-5997
Contact: Keith Harris, 618/304-8484
Governor pardons first Innocence Project subject
SPRINGFIELD-- Leaders of the Downstate Illinois Innocence Project today commended former Gov. George Ryan for granting clemency to Keith Harris, a Belleville resident who spent more than 20 years in prison after being wrongfully convicted of armed robbery and attempted murder.
"We are here today to applaud the exoneration of Keith Harris” said Nancy Ford, a professor of legal studies and public affairs at the University of Illinois at Springfield and co-project director.
"It is only right and just that Keith Harris’ name be cleared and that he be able to go on with his life without the cloud of a wrongful conviction hanging over him.”
“The Harris case illustrates the far-reaching problems in the investigation, arrest, trial, and appeal of cases in Illinois involving serious crimes-- even cases like this that do not involve the death penalty. Keith Harris' case particularly illustrates the problem of
eyewitness misidentification," added Bill Clutter, a private criminal investigator and co-founder of the Downstate Illinois Innocence Project.
Harris served 22 years of his 50-year sentence before being released in May, 2001, after an appeals court found his original sentence to be unduly harsh.
Harris, an inmate at the time, was the first person to receive the assistance of the Downstate Illinois Innocence Project at the University of Illinois at Springfield. The project involves students, under the supervision of a faculty member, a criminal investigator, and an attorney, in the investigation of cases in which the inmates are innocent of the crimes for which they were convicted.
Clutter said Harris was convicted and spent more than 20 years in prison despite the absence
of any physical evidence; the misidentification by a witness after multiple lineups, the confession of
two other individuals who had a history in the commission of similar crimes, and of the questioning of the evidence by Illinois crime investigators, particularly former Illinois State Police Crime Scene Investigator, Alva Busch.
While in prison, Harris earned his GED, got a job tutoring other inmates, and joined Lifers, Inc, a nonprofit organization that raises funds for prison improvements and worthy causes in the community. He also joined the Jaycees, launched a fund-raising drive for Southern Illinois flood victims, enrolled in and completed college courses. Since his release he has worked, married, and pursued efforts to clear his name, finally achieving his goal with Ryan’s Friday action.
Upon learning that his clemency petition had been granted, Harris said, “I want to first thank God it is over. I am overtaken with emotion, because we have worked so hard to make this happen. I am grateful to the Governor, the Innocence Project, and everyone who gave me their trust and support.” Harris was granted a full pardon based on actual innocence and his criminal record will be expunged.
Alva Busch, whose investigative efforts helped clear Harris, offered Keith his congratulations, saying, “If you want freedom and justice you have to fight for it. Keith did just that. I am glad his innocence has finally been established.”
Students from the project under the supervision of Political Studies Professor Larry Golden, Clutter and Ford began working with Harris on the case almost two years ago. They reviewed transcripts, reinterviewed participants, considered various strategies to achieve exoneration, and assisted in the preparation and presentation of the final appeal to the Illinois Prisoner Review Board. Harris was represented before the Illinois Prisoner Review Board by Springfield attorney John A. Baker.
Harris’ clemency was the first success for the Downstate Illinois Innocence Project, which is currently assisting several other inmates in their efforts to prove their innocence. Ford and Clutter are supervising a group of legal studies and criminal justice students in case investigations this spring.
“The innocence project gives students the opportunity to apply their classroom learning to help cure very real injustices in the criminal justice system,” Ford said. “We plan to make the Harris case just the first exoneration of many.”