DECATUR – Angel Gonzalez, 41, released from Dixon Correctional Center in March, is the eighth person the Illinois Innocence Project has helped free over the past 12 years.
Five of these success stories have happened since 2011, the year the project began receiving federal funding to hire its own legal staff.
Founding director Larry Golden said he looks for the faster pace to continue and counts efforts on behalf of the three people convicted of killing Karyn Hearn Slover among the project's current cases.
The most common factors leading to wrongful convictions? Golden said they include eyewitness misidentification, false confession, bad science and law enforcement or state's attorney misconduct.
“The American criminal justice system is broken,” Golden said in a telephone interview from his home in Springfield. “We're not only working to get people out of prison who are innocent but generate reforms to the system to prevent wrongful conviction.”
Golden, an emeritus professor of political and legal studies at the University of Illinois at Springfield, will be the featured speaker in Decatur this week during a meeting of the Macon County Criminal Justice Group, formerly known as Macon County Citizens Opposing Capital Punishment.
Angel Gonzalez is to be with him.
Sister JoAn Schullian, a member of the group, said she and others have long been impressed with the project's work and wanted to give the public a chance to learn about it, too.
Most recently, the Innocence Project received a $753,958 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice to spend more time exonerating Latino inmates such as Gonzalez, who spent more than 20 years in prison for a rape he did not commit.
After the victim misidentified Gonzalez as her assailant from her seat inside a squad car, he signed a confession written in English, a language he did not understand. He was proven innocent by DNA testing.
Golden said citizens groups like the Macon County Criminal Justice Group are vital to efforts to examine “the way we are trying and convicting people.”
He said imprisonment of Michael Slover Sr., Jeannette Slover and their son Michael Slover Jr. in the 1996 death of Karyn Hearn Slover was the culmination of a tragic case in which the Decatur-area community became upset and pushed for a conviction.
“The evidence was highly circumstantial,” Golden said. “It was so tenuous, in my judgment, the case never should have been brought to trial.”
He stressed, however, that members of the Illinois Innocence Project do not see their role as standing outside the criminal justice system and taking potshots. “Our goal is to work toward a system that gets it right,” Golden said.