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Wednesday, Nov. 22, 2017 12:05 am

Innocence Project receives grant for DNA testing

It was recently announced that the Illinois Innocence Project (IIP) will receive a $641,000 federal grant, part of a United States Department of Justice Bloodsworth grant. The grant is named in honor of Kirk Bloodsworth, who was exonerated by DNA evidence in 1993 after being sentenced to the death penalty, the first such case to have happened in Illinois.

“We are incredibly grateful for this grant,” said IIP executive director John Hanlon. “Without it, we would not be able to do hardly any DNA cases.” According to Hanlon, the project’s three most recent successful DNA exoneration cases collectively cost almost $100,000 dollars in lab fees alone.

The grant is targeted to pay only for testing in cases where DNA could reasonably lead to proving that someone is wrongfully convicted in two types of cases: eyewitness misidentification (still the most common source of wrongful convictions) and false confessions. “We know what the history is with the Chicago police in terms of procuring confessions,” Hanlon said, “but it’s not just Chicago, there are problems with confessions elsewhere in this state and in this country. We are looking for those select cases where the system has made a mistake.”

As part of the grant, the Illinois Innocence Project will hire several UIS undergraduate students to assist in the screening, review and evaluation of the cases. “Our undergrad students are the front line in these continued efforts to find good, actual innocence cases,” Hanlon said. The undergrads take the time to read the letters from inmates and family members applying for the IIP’s assistance, input data into the database, gather documents, begin correspondence with prospective clients, eventually giving a verbal presentation to the legal team. “When these undergrad students walk into those meetings they are the experts in those cases and those cases get either a thumbs-up or thumbs-down – and then the lawyers take over at some point, obviously,” Hanlon explained. “We will get about 400 applications for assistance this year. There are four lawyers with the IIP and preparing these cases takes an awful lot of tedious, detailed, persevering work that lawyers, in general, don’t have time to do.” Meanwhile, the students receive vital, hands-on experience putting together post-conviction exoneration cases.

“We are eternally grateful for the support of this university, which is tremendous,” Hanlon said. “This grant helps to give us continued sustainability but with or without the grant, we need the continued assistance of our private donors and the university.”  

Contact Scott Faingold at sfaingold@illinoistimes.com.

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