Downstate Illinois Innocence Project at UIS Celebrates 10 Year Anniversary
On Monday May 16th, from 5-7 p.m., the Downstate Illinois Innocence Project will celebrate its 10 year anniversary at the Inn at 835 So. Second Street.
Four individuals will receive this year’s Defenders of the Innocent Awards: U.S. Senator Richard Durbin (D-Ill) for helping facilitate a Dept. of Justice grant (one of the largest grants in UIS’ history) that establishes a post-conviction DNA testing assistance program for prisoners seeking DNA evidence to prove actual innocence; former State Police Crime Scene investigator Alva Busch for his work exonerating Belleville resident Keith Harris; true crime author Diane Fanning, whose book about a Texas serial killer exonerated Julie Rea of Lawrenceville; and former State Police Investigation Commander Michale Callahan (author of Too Politically Sensitive) whose efforts to re-investigate a Paris, IL double murder case helped exonerate Herb Whitlock.
“This will be a celebration for all those who have helped make the last ten years a success”, said Larry Golden, one of the founding members of the Project.
The Project was officially launched in Jan. 2001. “We started this as a class on wrongful convictions”, said Golden.
The idea to create the Project was brought to him by former Legal Studies student, Bill Clutter, who works as a private investigator and currently serves as director of investigations for the Project. Golden and Clutter teamed up to teach the first class.
An exoneration came in 2006, with the release of Julie Rea. She served 2 ½ years in prison before author Diane Fanning released her first true crime book Through the Window: The Terrifying True Story of Cross-Country Killer Tommy Lynn Sells. The book detailed the confession of a child serial killer on death row in Texas who admitted committing the murder of Julie Rea’s ten year-old son, Joel. The investigation of the Project corroborated the confession with witnesses who placed Sells in Lawrenceville at time of the murder.
Featured Speaker Diane Fanning
When Diane Fanning was 9 years old, a man asking for directions stopped his car on a hill in an empty stretch of road. He opened his car door and asked her to look at his map. She approached his car only to have him grab her upper arm and try to pull her into his car. At that moment, another vehicle came up over the hill. The driver of that car laid on the horn, causing her impending abductor to let go of her arm and drive off with his car door open.
As a big fan of Dragnet, she knew to memorize his license plate number. He was picked up and eventually convicted for the sexual assault and murder of an 8-year-old girl which had occurred the month before his attempted abduction of Diane. That incident created a lifelong interest in the psychology of the criminal mind.
When Diane heard about Krystal Surles, the 10-year-old who exhibited incredible courage and determination to bring an end to the two-decade killing spree of Tommy Lynn Sells, Krystal’s experience resonated with her. Diane thought Krystal had done so much more–endured so much more–than her; Diane simply had to write Krystal’s story. The result of that was her first true crime book, Through the Window.
Little did Diane know that her first true crime book would also assist in the exoneration of an innocent woman in Illinois. That woman, Julie Rea had been accused and eventually convicted of murdering her own son, Joel Kirkpatrick. However, Diane knew, due to her interviews with Tommy Lynn Sells in Texas that the Joel’s actual murderer was not his mother, but the notorious serial killer. Diane’s insertion of that confession into her book helped free Julie who spent 2 years in prison before being released on bond, retired and finally acquitted July 26, 2006.
Diane has written 10 true crime books. She has been featured on 20/20, 48 hours, and CNN among others. She is an Edgar Award Finalist and has published the only definitive book regarding Florida’s Caylee Anthony, “Mommy’s Little Girl.”
This event will also introduce the partnership that began this year with the University of Illinois College of Law and Southern Illinois Law School with UIS. The federal grant made it possible for the Project to hire its first staff attorney John Hanlon in the position of Legal Director. Hanlon is leading the effort to screen cases for DNA testing as part of the federal grant. “I really look forward to what should be a celebration of things to come”, said Hanlon. “Look at what was accomplished over the last ten years with very few resources to work with. Imagine the possibilities that lay ahead.”
Those interested in attending or becoming an event sponsor can call (217)206-7989 or register on-line: uis.edu/innocenceproject. A tax-deductible donation of $100 is encouraged for those interested in purchasing tickets.