Not guilty: Illinois Innocence Project helps the falsely accused
Imagine sitting at home when the police come to your door and tell you that you are about to be charged for murder. That is what happened to Anthony Murray. He was convicted of murder in the first degree 14 years ago and received a 45-year prison sentence for a crime he didn’t commit.
Murray was released last year alongside the people who fought for him every step of the way. This team of legal professionals is a group of men and women from the Illinois Innocence Project. The group has over 40 pending cases with inmates just like Murray, imprisoned for crimes they did not commit.
Larry Golden, director of the Illinois Innocence Project, is passionate about his work. “To see Anthony Murray released from prison after 14 years, it’s so hard to put this experience into words,” Golden said. “I’ve often said to my friends, ‘How many people have the opportunity to give a person back their life?’”
“It’s not like a criminal case. The appeals process is very drawn out. You never really know it’s going to happen until it happens, but you work your hardest every single day to make that appeal happen,” Golden said.
Murray’s case is the fifth successful appeal for the UIS-based Illinois Innocence Project, and a first in one important way. The Project members believe he is innocent, and he maintains his innocence today. But to get out of prison, Murray and his team submitted an ‘Alford Plea.’ This allows a prisoner to plead guilty to a lesser offense while maintaining innocence for the crime he was originally charged. In exchange for a guilty plea for a second-degree murder charge, Murray was released the following day on credit of his 14 years and two months served.
Rebecca Jo Luke, a student worker at Illinois Innocence Project said, “While it is sad that Mr. Murray had to accept an Alford plea, I know for certain that everyone involved felt it was worth the effort when we received a picture of Anthony Murray hugging his grandchild for the first time. Releases are a big thing and victories are rare in innocence work. But days like the cold gray morning in October when Mr. Murray walked out of prison are what keeps incredible people like the attorneys, staff and volunteers at the Illinois Innocence Project going. Whatever small part I had in working on the case, I will always know that I helped save a life.”
One of the project’s current cases involves Pamela Jacobazzi, a former child care professional. According to her case file, she was charged with the murder of one of her clients, 10-month-old Matthew Czapski. Unfortunately for Jacobazzi, she did not require a medical examination before taking on a new client and was unaware of the child’s medical problems. These conditions included sickle cell trait, abnormal hemoglobin levels and an ongoing struggle with infection, fever, anemia and dehydration.
Jacobazzi was convicted of Matthew’s death was based on the symptoms of Shaken Baby Syndrome (SBS). Now, however, it is considered a suspect diagnosis – many of the symptoms presented in SBS cases are attributed to the syndrome instead of the underlying medical causes. Such causes are usually pre-existing conditions.
A team of U of I students are working with Jacobazzi’s attorney to resolve the case and prove that Jacobazzi was the victim of circumstance, not a killer. They contest that Matthew’s underlying diseases are what really killed him.
UIS students are highly involved in the project, analyzing the claims that come to the office. To be accepted, Golden says, there are several criteria cases need to be met. “They have to be in Illinois. They have to actually be innocent, no technicalities. There has to be something we can do to help. And they need to have 4 years or more left on their sentence, because these things take a lot of time.”
“Most people’s image of criminal proceedings is of a trial where people are presumed innocent and declared guilty. Our cases are those where the defendant is already guilty. And once they’re convicted, our system is designed to make it as hard to exonerate them as possible,” Golden said.
Students interested in assisting the Project have several options available to them. The Innocence Club always welcomes new members, and there is a class taught by project members called “Conviction of the Innocent.” Donations are also appreciated and can be brought or mailed to PAC 429 on campus.
“It’s important to understand, there’s a lot of popular media coverage about this issue; movies, TV shows, all having to do with these issues. We’re in the middle of a major national and international movement with these issues. It’s a very important time to be aware and get involved. This is a movement to restore justice in the criminal justice systems all over the world.” Golden and the UIS Innocence Project are located in PAC 429. For more information, go to www.uis.edu/innocenceproject.