SPRINGFIELD - Few people knew it when Keith Harris was pardoned last Friday for a crime he did not commit.
The pardon from former Gov. George Ryan came on the same day Ryan announced pardons of four death row inmates and before he granted clemency to 167 other inmates on death row Saturday, both of which received massive media coverage.
But Harris' case represents the first success of the Downstate Illinois Innocence Project at the University of Illinois at Springfield, the only undergraduate innocence project in the country.
Matt Smith, a UIS graduate who worked on the case both as a student and after he graduated, took the day off work last Friday to listen to Ryan's speech, hoping to hear that Harris was pardoned. He was disappointed not to hear Harris' name.
?I was kind of upset. I thought, ?Well, it's not going to happen,'? Smith said.
But Smith, other students and the leaders of the project were celebrating after learning earlier this week that Harris had been pardoned.
?It feels like a real boost,? said Nancy Ford, an attorney and professor of legal studies and public affairs at UIS. She oversees the innocence project, along with Larry Golden, a professor of political science and legal studies, and Bill Clutter, a criminal investigator.
The innocence project was established in 2001 and is based at UIS' Center for Legal Studies. It is affiliated with the Innocence Project at Cardozo Law School in New York and with Northwestern University's Center on Wrongful Convictions. The students - mostly upperclassmen in legal studies - provide research and investigative help to attorneys representing inmates in cases where there is a strong likelihood the inmate is actually innocent of the crime of which he was convicted.
?It gives them an opportunity to practice what they've been learning on actual cases,? Ford said. ?The biggest learning experience was to see how the process works and some of the barriers. I think people are shocked sometimes to see a person can be innocent but won't necessarily be freed, or how they got convicted in the first place. It's kind of an eye-opener.?
?I was under the assumption what's right is right and what's wrong is wrong, and all we had to do was prove Keith was innocent,? Smith said. ?I didn't realize that nothing is quite that easy, or black and white. I sure didn't think it was going to take this long.?
Harris, of Belleville, was convicted of a 1978 armed robbery and attempted murder at a gas station in Caseyville in which the attendant was shot. Ford said Harris' conviction was based primarily on a faulty identification by the shooting victim, who picked out Harris' photo only after seeing it more than once in what she said was a suggestive process.
Less than six months after Harris was convicted, another man confessed to the crime, but Harris still served 22 years in prison. He was released in May 2001, not because of the likelihood he was innocent, but based on an appeal in which a court said his sentence was excessive.
Students began working on Harris' case in the spring of 2001. Ford said they reviewed his case file, as well as that of the man who later confessed to the crime. They interviewed witnesses, learned about the clemency process, then helped prepare Harris' clemency petition and supporting documents.
Harris testified before the Illinois Prisoner Review Board during clemency hearings in October. With the pardon, his record will be expunged.
Smith said he has also gained something from the experience. He feels lucky to know Harris, who is now a friend, and he said Harris was a positive example throughout the clemency process.
?He just never gave up,? Smith said, adding he has also learned not to give up on a cause he feels is just. ?I wish that people could see the real Keith Harris. He's a one-in-a-million person.?