Illinois Innocence Project Chalks Up Another Exoneration

Feb 16, 2015

Chris Abernathy walked out of an Illinois prison last week for the first time in nearly 30 years. 

The 48 year old had been serving time for the rape and murder of a 15 year old, Kristina Hickey. 

Abernathy's freedom came with the help of a group based at the University of Illinois Springfield.   The Illinois Innocence Project provided DNA testing that helped convince authorities to release Abernathy.

"We get a request for help, about 1 a day," said Larry Golden, Founding Director.  "We've had 7 people we've helped exonerate."

Abernathy being the latest.  

"We find very often the cases that come to our project come from lawyers or insistent family members," Golden said.  Abernathy's case was brought forth by a staff attorney who was aware of the situation at a previous job.  

Abernathy had signed a confession.  There was also a person who testified Abernathy admitted her had killed Hickey.  But that statement was later retracted.  Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez said Abernathy's confession was apparently coerced and questions were raised about his mental capacity.

(L-R) Faith Hook, Larry Golden, Bob Gibbons
Credit WUIS

Students at the University of Illinois Springfield interning with Illinois Innocence Project saw Abernathy walk out of prison.  

"It put meaning to everything we were doing," said Faith Hook, a UIS junior from Effingham.  "When I actually got to go there and experience it in the courthouse and watch this man, who had been in prison for 30 years, walk outside... it was very emotional."

UIS Senior Bob Gibbons said it solidified his desire to become a lawyer.  "It really gave meaning to some of the work we do."

Since 2001, the Illinois Innocence Project has field 1664 requests for help.  35 cases are considered active.  

Golden said the public's views on wrongful convictions has developed over the years.  

"There has been a sea change in the last 15 years.  The growth of the innocence movement and exposure to mistakes that have been made, particularly years ago in the practices  of police.  Yes, we're in a very different place." 

Read more about the Abernathy case from NPR.