Innocent Decatur man released from prison
Charles Palmer served 18 years for a crime he didn’t commit
“It’s a great day and the journey’s just starting,” said a visibly emotional Charles Palmer of Decatur, surrounded by a jubilant crush of family and friends on Nov. 23. Palmer was released by the Illinois Department of Corrections on the day before Thanksgiving after spending 18 years wrongly imprisoned for the 1998 murder of William Helmbacher.
The dramatic release came just one week after a Macon County judge overturned Palmer’s conviction and life sentence for first-degree murder and awarded him a new trial. The Macon County state’s attorney on Nov. 23 declined to retry the case, a decision which led to Palmer’s release that same day.
The Illinois Innocence Project had been advocating for Palmer since 2011. In the end the case was overturned after DNA evidence tested by IIP from samples taken at the crime scene were shown to not be a match for Palmer. In light of this evidence, the prosecution declined to pursue the case further.
During Palmer’s April 2000 trial, the jury had sent multiple requests for evidence. The jury also reportedly deliberated for 13 hours before finding Palmer guilty of murder but not guilty of residential burglary. According to an Innocence Project press release, six UIS students, along with numerous IIP staffers and volunteers, worked on this case over the years, along with another six law school students from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign College of Law. According to IIP, the DNA testing in the case was made possible by federal grants awarded in 2010 and 2012 to University of Illinois Springfield for use by the Illinois Innocence Project.
The scene at the Macon County Courthouse on Wednesday was joyous, although Palmer and his loved ones seemed equal parts stunned and happy. When asked how he felt at the moment of release, Palmer described his emotional state as “goodness everywhere – I just feel great, no words for it.” He described himself as simply happy to be united with what he described, with a sweeping gesture encompassing the entire room, as both his family and his extended family.
“I am happy for Charles, happy for his family and happy for justice,” said Innocence Project executive director John Hanlon, adding that it is important not to lose sight of the fact that the case began with a man being killed and that the murderer has eluded justice while Palmer served out his time.
For his part, Palmer was asked the first thing he would do as a newly free man.
“Kiss the ground,” he said with a smile. “God be the glory.”
Contact Scott Faingold at email@example.com.