Years ago, I watched the movie “Shawshank Redemption” and observed the character Andy Dufresne try to prove his innocence for a murder he didn’t commit.
He, of course, had to do this while serving a life sentence in a Maine maximum-security prison.
It was good cinema, but I remember watching the movie as a young man in my 20s and wondering: “Can an innocent person really end up in prison?”
Now, in my 50s, I feel a bit silly having ever wondered this.
I’ve met too many people who have been wrongly convicted.
Back in the 1990s, when I covered Moline City Hall, I met a kind man named Darrel Parker, who was working for the city parks department. He had been wrongly convicted of murder in Nebraska. It has taken the state of Nebraska more than 60 years to acknowledge its mistake and fully exonerate Mr. Parker.
Later when I was a statehouse bureau chief for a chain of Illinois newspapers, a man named Gary Gauger dropped by my office. He was wrongly convicted of murdering his parents in rural McHenry County. He served two years on Illinois’ death row before his conviction was thrown out.
His tale of wrongful conviction left me speechless. And his is hardly an isolated case. There were 13 innocent men freed from Illinois’ death row.
Just how often people are convicted of a crime they didn’t commit, no one really knows. But we do know that it happens.
Just what is an acceptable number of innocent people in prison?
Ben Franklin said, “That it is better 100 guilty persons should escape than that one innocent person should suffer,”
But when I asked a prison guard I knew whether he had encountered any inmates that he thought were innocent, he shrugged and said, “Well, the way I look at it is,if they are in prison for something they didn’t do, they probably did something else that they ought to be in prison for doing.”
Sadly, that sort of cynicism has become pervasive.
The advent of DNA testing has proven many people once thought guilty beyond a reasonable doubt to be innocent. Too often those individuals have spent decades in prison while the guilty party remained free, committing more crimes.
Innocence organizations have cropped up across the nation to advocate for those who have no one left to advocate for them.
These organizations are the last hope for the wrongly incarcerated. And typically, they depend on the labor of students, volunteer lawyers and a handful of staff attorneys.
Despite these limitations, the Illinois Innocence Project headquartered at the University of Illinois at Springfield has had remarkable success. It has been responsible for proving the innocence of 11 people.
Every year, they receive hundreds of requests for assistance but must turn away almost all.
“We are just drowning here,” said John Hanlon, executive director of the Illinois Innocence Project. “Every time we have success in a case, we receive even more applications. We are getting to the point that we are considering temporarily not considering more applications. And that is something that none of us want to do.”
The reason they would have to halt considering applications for a time is so they could deal with the backlog of applications they already have.
The Illinois Innocence Project is seeking a $1.5 million appropriation from the Illinois General Assembly to help alleviate the backlog of cases.
Yes, the state is struggling financially. But can we really put a price on justice?
We spend almost $50,000 a year to incarcerate one person in the Illinois Department of Corrections. For each person, the Innocence Project frees, the state saves at least that much. And those individuals go from being wards of the state to being taxpayers.
But more importantly, if it were your son or daughter, sister or brother who was unjustly suffering behind bars wouldn’t you want the advocate of last resort there to help them?
– Scott Reeder is a veteran statehouse journalist. He works as a freelance reporter in the Springfield area and produces the podcast Suspect Convictions.