DECATUR — Charles Palmer has thanked members of the Illinois Innocence Project hundreds of times for coming up with the DNA evidence that exonerated him from the murder he'd spent 16½ years in prison for.
On Saturday night, Palmer was present at the Decatur Hotel and Conference Center to see the Decatur community thank the Illinois Innocence Project, which became the first entity outside Decatur to win the Joe Slaw Civil Rights Award, given annually by the Decatur Branch of the NAACP.
Illinois Innocence Project Executive Director John Hanlon called Palmer and his wife Deborah Palmer to the podium as he accepted the award, but Palmer said all the credit should go to the Innocence Project staff, whom he hugged individually before leaving.
"I'm glad they're finally getting the recognition they deserve," Palmer said. "They're out there affecting people's lives for the better. They said they got this award because of me, but it's not because of me, it's because of the fight they put up for justice.
"Just to be a part of seeing them get honored, and being the first from outside of Decatur to win the award, that meant a lot to me."
The Decatur NAACP has been awarding the Slaw award for more than 30 years. Jeanelle Norman, NAACP Decatur Branch president, said it took a special circumstance to give the awards to someone outside Decatur.
"Their work gave us hope and justice, and it moved the Decatur community one giant step forward in criminal justice," Norman said. "The NAACP believes the service of the Illinois Innocence Project was of such magnitude."
Based out of the University of Illinois-Springfield, the Illinois Innocence Project's goal is to bring justice to the wrongfully convicted.
"It's not always easy — often we're working on one case at a time and it takes hundreds or thousands of hours for one person," Hanlon said. "That can be very frustrating, and there are days where I wish I would have become a scientist and come up with a cure that would help thousands of people.
"But then I stop and realize that helping that one person, who has no one else out there fighting for them, is well worth it.
"And when Dr. Norman told me this case had uplifted the community, that's really an honor."
He said helping overturn cases like Palmer's is a team effort.
"We have 56 people statewide who contribute something for us," Hanlon said. "And we also have the backing of the university. If it wasn't for the University of Illinois-Springfield, that man (Palmer) would not be sitting with us. We spent almost $31,000 on DNA testing. Without a university receiving a grant, we would not have been able to do that."
Palmer, 62 at the time of his release in November, was arrested on Sept. 22. 1998, for the murder of 32-year-old Decatur attorney William Helmbacher in his westside apartment on Aug. 27, 1998. Palmer was convicted on April 27, 2000.
Deborah enlisted the help of paralegal Fonda Robbins in 2003, who subsequently persuaded lawyers at the Innocence Project to take his case. After the Illinois Innocence Project had evidence tested that showed Palmer was not the man whose DNA was found beneath the murder victim's fingernails and in hair found in his hands, Palmer's conviction was vacated Nov. 16.