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Thursday, March 1, 2018 12:07 am

After 22 years, fire science sets convict free

Recent exoneree Bill Amor (left) with Larry Golden of Illinois Innocence Project.
Photo by Scott Faingold
“You’re readjusting to just walking down the street, being in crowded elevators, things that everybody goes through all the time,” said Bill Amor, whose 1997 convictions on charges of arson and murder were vacated by a DuPage County judge last week. He eventually spent 22 years in prison on a 45-year sentence. “It’s just so much adjustment.”

Amor’s case was taken up in 2012 by the Illinois Innocence Project, based at University of Illinois Springfield. According to Larry Golden, founding director of the IIP, this is the first case where new fire science was used to overturn a judgment here in Illinois. The science contradicted  a false confession signed by Amor in which he had stated the fire which claimed the life of his mother-in-law was deliberately set using vodka as an accelerant. That, it turns out, is a scientific impossibility.

In addition to the claims made in the confession being impossible, the confession itself was shown to have been extracted under duress. Amor had been undergoing interrogation for several hours when a process server was permitted to interrupt the interrogation in order to serve him divorce papers from his wife. “False confessions are very common,” said Golden. “The judge [Judge Liam Brennan] said in court that the police are entitled under the law to use essentially any psychological techniques, to even lie during the interrogation.” Still, Golden refused to cast aspersions on law enforcement and prosecutors involved in the case. “This is a hard system we’re working in. Police and even prosecutors are under a lot of pressure with high-profile cases like this.”

Amor, 61, has been out of prison on bond since May 2017, and described himself as overwhelmed but optimistic regarding his new freedom. “I don’t think being bitter is going to help me,” he said. “I have my moments, but overall it’s harder on your health. I’m just grateful for all the help from everybody [involved with the Innocence Project], it’s just been wonderful and I wouldn’t be free without all their help.”

Amor, whose father and brother both died while he was in prison, said that the worst part of being incarcerated for two decades was losing family members. “The lowest point is losing people you love. Prison is one thing, but losing people you love when you’re locked up is way worse. Once you start losing family members from age and disease and accidents and what-have-you, you’re left with very little.”

For now, Amor’s primary focus is on trying to adjust to life outside of prison, not just with advances in technology but even the most basic social situations. “A lot of guys in prison just walk with their head down. I did that because you just don’t want to face none of it,” he said. “You have a tendency to do that for a while once you get out, too. It takes a while to fit back in.” But it gets better. “The other thing that hit me was how much stuff costs – it’s horrible! I went to Target or something and got some incidentals and it came to $180. You gotta be kidding me,” he said, chuckling incredulously.

“I can’t begin to describe the kinds of feelings we have when somebody like Bill walks out of prison as the result of the work that we’re doing,” said Golden, who noted that UIS students who work on these cases are also moved, often in life-changing and career-altering ways.”It’s a blessing to be part of that work.”

Amor is determined to maintain a positive attitude, drawing from whatever sources he can. “It isn’t written, you just have to find faith,” he said. “It’s different for everybody. Now that I’m free I hope I can do a little more to help others [who are wrongly imprisoned].”

The Illinois Innocence Project will celebrate Amor’s exoneration at the project’s annual Defenders of the Innocent awards dinner in Springfield on April 28, 2018, at the Crowne Plaza Springfield.

Scott Faingold can be reached at sfaingold@illinoistimes.com .

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