FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE Date: November 7, 2001
Contact: Donna McCracken, 206-6716
SPRINGFIELD – The Downstate Illinois Innocence Project at the University of Illinois at Springfield has received a $2,000 grant from the Illinois Campus Compact. The funds will be used to support service learning activities of UIS students working in the project.
Conviction of the innocent is a local, state, and national problem. To date, some 70 murder convictions in this country have been reversed or overturned because the person convicted was subsequently proved innocent. Since the death penalty was reinstated in Illinois in 1977, 13 death row inmates have been exonerated, leading Gov. George Ryan to impose a moratorium on executions in the state.
The Downstate Illinois Innocence Project is modeled after Northwestern University=s Center on Wrongful Convictions and the Innocence Project at Cardozo Law School in New York. Housed within UIS= Center for Legal Studies, the project is directed by Larry Golden, professor of Legal Studies and Political Studies, and Nancy Ford, associate professor of Legal Studies and a licensed attorney. Springfield criminal investigator Bill Clutter serves as an adjunct professor, co-teaching classes and guiding students= investigative efforts. A 16-member advisory board has been formed.
A key part of the project is the spring seminar course Wrongful Convictions, taught by Golden, in which students provide research and investigative assistance to individuals who have been arrested, tried, found guilty, and imprisoned for crimes that they most likely did not commit. The project will only review cases that have been screened by others, including the Office of the State Appellate Defender.
Assistance will be given in cases where a presumption of innocence is likely due to such factors as absence of physical evidence linking the inmate to the crime, questions about the reliability of eyewitnesses or the credibility of the inmate=s confession, crimes that are by nature inconsistent with an inmate=s background, identification of alternative suspects, availability of DNA evidence or new evidence that might exonerate the inmate, allegations of police or prosecutorial misconduct, and the length of time and consistency of the inmate=s claim of innocence.
Six students enrolled in last spring=s seminar investigated the case of Keith Harris, who served 22 years in the Centralia Correctional Center for attempted murder. Though two other men later confessed to the crime, Harris remained in prison until he was put on supervised release in June 2000. He is presently seeking executive clemency and is supported in his efforts by four of the students, who are continuing to work on his case even though their class has ended, on their own time.
Though the wrongful convictions seminar is primarily for Legal Studies majors who are completing their undergraduate degree requirements, it is open to other undergraduate and graduate students on a limited basis with permission of the instructor. Other students and faculty are involved with the project as well, including a small number of graduate students who are spending the fall semester conducting preliminary research into a case referred by Clutter. These students will help faculty decide which cases are most appropriate for further investigation by students in the spring seminar.
Service learning opportunities offered by the project also include a planned spring workshop on “Demystifying Scientific Evidence.” The workshop is designed for criminal defense attorneys as well as faculty and students and will cover such topics as fingerprint, hair, fiber, and DNA evidence -- and its limitations.
“One goal in the development of this project at UIS is to cross disciplinary lines and involve students and faculty from various programs on campus,” Ford observed. “For example, the students working on cases this fall are from the Political Studies, Legal Studies, and Criminal Justice programs.
“We are in the process of discussing what skills and classes students who are not Legal Studies majors need to work on innocence cases. This will be part of the planning process over the next 12 to 18 months. The results of this research will be immediately evident within the judicial system and even to the public when innocent people are exonerated.”
The Illinois Campus Compact, associated with the National Campus Compact, is a network of universities that supports engagement by universities within their communities, particularly through linking with the work in specific courses, or “service learning.”
For more information about the Downstate Illinois Innocence Project, contact Ford at (217) 206-6358 or Golden at (217) 206-7885.