Students rally against wrongful convictions, executions

A Georgia execution of a man that took place over a week ago continues to resonate with students on campus.

Students and community members gathered together over the weekend for a vigil expressing solidarity with Troy Davis. His conviction stood despite doubts surrounding his guilt in the 1989 killing of a Savannah police officer.

The causes for doubt in the Davis case are not unique. Seven of nine eyewitnesses who testified against Davis in the original trial later recanted their testimony in sworn affidavits. According to the Innocence Project, a non-profit national litigation and public policy organization, eyewitness misidentification was a cause of wrongful conviction in 77 percent of the first 225 cases where DNA evidence led to exonerations in the United States.

DNA evidence has now exonerated 273 people in the U.S., but there remain cases like Davis’ where such evidence is not available. According to the Innocence Project’s website, only 10 percent of wrongful convictions involve DNA evidence.

Davis’ case garnered worldwide attention, said Leighton Christiansen, graduate student, who organized the vigil on behalf of the University chapter of the International Socialist Organization, an organization that advocates for socialist causes.

“People stood up and held up signs and wore t-shirts that said, ‘I am Troy Davis’ because they identify with his struggle for justice,” Christiansen said.

Locally, the Downstate Illinois Innocence Project, an affiliate of the national Innocence Project, will receive additional resources to further their efforts.

One day after Davis’ execution, U.S. Senator Dick Durbin’s (D-Ill.) office announced that the project based at the University of Illinois at Springfield, or UIS, had been awarded a $249,319 Department of Justice grant to work on cases in which DNA evidence is not a factor. John Hanlon, legal director of the post-conviction DNA testing program of the project, said cases not involving DNA evidence require starting from scratch when reviewing the case.

“You have to sometimes reinvent the wheel and go back and do that which could have or should have been done from the start of the case,” Hanlon said. Hanlon was hired to the project after over 20 years as an appellate defender.

He said the grant will pay for the hiring of an attorney to supervise research on about 60 cases lacking DNA evidence.

The project also has been collaborating with the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s College of Law since summer 2010, which he said has helped the project do more as well.

“It has been fantastic for the law students,” Hanlon said. “It’s been wonderful for our clients because I can’t do all the cases by myself.”

Undergraduate and graduate students at the UIS also participate. Undergraduates at the Urbana-Champaign campus are able to volunteer for the project. Josie Stoner, sophomore in LAS, volunteered after taking a course taught by law professor Steven Beckett. She said she had the opportunity to do research for a petition filed by law students working with the project.

“It opens your eyes and makes you skeptical about whether things are biased in the system,” Stoner said.

Beckett, who supervises law students working on the project at the Urbana-Champaign campus, said students get an opportunity to learn about the post-conviction process, which he said was exceedingly complex, and to do things that most law students will not do until they are practicing lawyers.

“It’s a real moving experience to go to prison and meet the client – putting a face and a person to a name – it’s not abstract, it’s real,” he said.

Larry Golden, executive director of the project, is on the national board of The Innocence Network, a coalition of organizations that work to exonerate the wrongfully convicted.

Golden said one thing that often gets overlooked is that the project has a common purpose with prosecutors and law enforcement.

“It’s not just a matter of getting people who are innocent out of prison but making sure that the right people are put in prison. So for every person who is found innocent, there’s a person out on the street who actually committed that crime.”

At the vigil, Christiansen, the organizer of the event, said the family of the police officer who Davis was accused of killing did not receive justice because the wrong man was very likely put to death for the crime. He said just because a person has a trial, it does not mean we have a right to execute when serious doubts about his innocence arise.

“That goes against the basic idea of justice that most of us have,” he said.

Hanlon said the Davis case is part of a national “blood lust” and that some people think close enough is good enough.

“But what I hope that the Davis situation does is make people reflect,” he said. “Are there acceptable losses in the so-called war on crime? Is it okay to execute somebody where there are substantial questions of guilt? Is that an acceptable loss?”