Executive Director John Hanlon
Announces His Retirement

It is with mixed emotions that we announce the retirement of Executive Director John Hanlon, a treasured colleague and exceptional attorney who has devoted his career to serving innocent people harmed by the criminal justice system.

John joined the “Downstate Illinois Innocence Project” at the University of Illinois Springfield (UIS) in 2011 as the Project’s first attorney and legal director. At the time, he was in his 24th year of practicing criminal defense at the Illinois Office of the State Appellate Defender. There, among his many accomplishments, John argued and won six death penalty cases in the Illinois Supreme Court. He also represented 4 of the 21 wrongfully convicted individuals who were proven innocent and released from death row, including Rolando Cruz, pictured below with John in a recent reunion. (Rolando holds a special place in John’s heart as his first exonerated client. He spent 10 years on death row; DNA eventually proved his innocence.) 

Little could John have imagined the extraordinary organizational growth he would oversee. He arrived when the Project had no legal staff and was assisting in the investigation of just a couple of cases. Over the next 10 years “Downstate” evolved into the “Illinois” Innocence Project (IIP) – the only undergraduate-based innocence organization in the country with 2 offices, 40 active cases statewide, 6 attorneys (full- and part-time), a large support staff and nearly 20 student interns and volunteers at any given time. Of the 19 individuals IIP has helped exonerate and/or release, 15 have occurred during John’s tenure.

“I feel so incredibly fortunate to have had the opportunity to work as the Executive Director of the Illinois Innocence Project,” John says. “From years of death penalty work to over a decade devoted to innocence work, no lawyer could have been so fortunate to work in areas of such importance and purpose. I have interacted with fantastic colleagues both within and outside of IIP, and at my previous positions with the Office of the State Appellate Defender.”

Under John’s leadership, IIP has demonstrated its commitment and capacity to undertake ambitious projects such that the U.S. Department of Justice has awarded IIP more federal grants than any other innocence organization nationwide. These grants have funded work on cases involving eyewitness misidentification, incentivized testimony, guilty pleas and collaborations with prosecutors, and creation of the Latino Innocence Initiative to address the wrongful conviction of Latinx individuals.

Bookending John’s passion for freeing innocent people is his passion for preventing wrongful convictions. He oversaw development of IIP’s “Wrongful Conviction Avoidance” training program, which stands as the country’s only ongoing collaboration between an innocence organization and a police training facility (the University of Illinois Police Training Institute) and activated IIP’s legislative reform program, leading to, among numerous successes, implementation of state-mandated eyewitness identification best practices and a model jailhouse informant bill. He has passed his expertise in post-conviction law and litigation to hundreds of future justice fighters in UIS undergraduate and University of Illinois College of Law classes.

John retires on June 30, leaving IIP at a time when it appears State funding will help the organization continue its work into the foreseeable future. We wish him only the best as he opens this new chapter in his life.

“My lawyering days are NOT over, but it’s time for me to have a little greater focus
on myself, family, good health and fun. Thank you to our generous and wonderful donors
and supporters, to the University, and to everyone who has supported IIP in any manner.
See you all around. …”

~ John

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