At the tenth anniversary celebration of the Downstate Illinois Innocence Project on Monday night, I was the main speaker and a recipient of a Defender of the Innocent award.  I cannot find the words to express how incredible it was to be at an event with Julie Rea knowing that I played a role in obtaining her freedom after her wrongfully conviction.

Julie Rea, photo by Ginny Lee

Seeing her stand there, no longer behind bars, was an overwhelming joy topped only by learning she succeded in obtaining a Certificate of Actual Innocence from the State of Illinois.  The process to get that document is extremely arduous and goes far beyond her second trial verdict of not guilty.  The second trial said that the state could not prove its case against her.  The certificate says the prosecution was unwarranted, Julie is totally unblemished by any blame or responsibility.

Julie and I got quite emotional up at the podium when she introduced me.  But, honestly, it went far beyond us.  We both had our emotional pumps primed by the speakers that proceded us to center stage.  Herb Whitlock, freed after twenty-one years of incarceration for a crime he did not commit, introduced Michale Callahan, a former investigator for the Illinois State Police.  Michale wrote one of the most important books I have ever read, TOO POLITICALLY SENSITIVE.  His book exposes the wrong-doing perpetrated by law enforcement and prosecution in the convictions of Herb Whitlock and Randy Steidl as well as ripping back the shield that covered the dark stream of corruption polluting the agency where he worked for many years.

Kathy Saltmarsh, appeals attorney for Randy, was our emcee who provided valuable and moving commentary throughout–as well as an exqusite sense of timing that kept the event moving forward.

With Ann Masters Ogden Hamilton
It was quite humbling to look out over that room filled with people committed to helping the wrongfully convicted.  Many of them have done so much to rectify the injustices committed by the state against so many.
The last two speakers were two men I deeply admire: Bill Clutter, investigator for the Downstate Illinois Innocence Project, and Randy Steidl, an exonoree who spent seventeen years behind bars, mostly on death row.  Bill is a workhorse, a man of principle and a incredibly gifted investigator who will make any personal sacrifice to free the innocent.  Randy is a courgeous man and a beacon of hope to the wrongfully convicted everywhere.  It was an honor to meet him.


Nadine O’Leary and Diane. Photo by Ginny Lee

I came from the event with a firm conviction of the value of the work of the Downstate Illinois Innocence Project.  They have recently received a large grant to facilitate DNA testing but they have a great need for funds to help in other cases.  It is rare for a woman to be exonerated through DNA and with the female population experiencing a dramatic increase in recent years, more wrongfully convicted women are now behind bars.

If you hesitate to become involved or make a donation to this cause, remember this: for nearly every wrongfully convicted person, there is a perpetrator walking our streets, preying on new victims. That thought should be one that haunts every prosecutor and pushes them to always seek truth and ensure justice.

To learn more about, or make a donation to, the Downstate Illinois Innocence Project, visit their website.  Or check out their Facebook page.