Still trying to get Illinois to admit he's innocent

Charles Palmer, center, is escorted by Illinois Innocence Project staff to see family and supporters after his 2016 release from prison. - PHOTO COURTESY UIS.EDU/ILLINOISINNOCENCEPROJECT
Photo courtesy uis.edu/illinoisinnocenceproject
Charles Palmer, center, is escorted by Illinois Innocence Project staff to see family and supporters after his 2016 release from prison.

Charles Palmer was exonerated and released in 2016 after serving 18 years of a life sentence. Now he is seeking a certificate of innocence (COI) from the state's highest court. An exoneree must have a COI in order to get compensation from the state.

Palmer was exonerated after being convicted of first-degree murder in Decatur. He was released in 2016, with the help of the Illinois Innocence Project, based at University of Illinois Springfield. The project provided new DNA evidence. Palmer was convicted in 1999, largely based on speculative testimony and blood traces found on the inside mesh of his shoe. However, scrapings from the victim's fingernails and DNA from hair found in the victim's hands did not match Palmer's DNA.

Two years after the state dropped charges and Palmer was released, he filed for a COI with the Macon County Circuit Court, but his petition was denied. The decision was upheld by an appellate court. Central to the decisions was the trace blood evidence on a shoe belonging to Palmer, that he had testified may have been borrowed. The shoe was twice tested before the victim's DNA was found. Still, the state agreed a person other than Palmer was the attacker of the victim, due to the DNA evidence of the hair and skin cells on the victim, not belonging to Palmer. In January of this year, Palmer's defense team argued before the Illinois Supreme Court the new evidence that led to his exoneration satisfies the requirements to prove innocence.

To apply for a COI, a person must have been convicted of one or more felonies by the state of Illinois and have served time for the conviction. Evidence must show there is more than a 50% chance of innocence. This places the burden for evidence on those wrongfully convicted. The erosion of evidence over time puts those who have served longer sentences at a disadvantage. Petitioners who receive a COI are owed compensation for time served. But advocates for the innocent say often, exonerees mainly desire that the state acknowledge its mistake and clear the names of the wrongfully accused.

Palmer's attorney, Rachel Elaine Brady, filed a brief with the Illinois Supreme Court that included the stories of previous Illinois exonerees. Each case highlights how hard transitioning from prison can be and how COIs can help.

Jacques Rivera was wrongfully convicted of the 1988 shooting death of a teen. Rivera spent 20 years in a maximum-security unit at Stateville Correctional Center. He suffered from PTSD and paranoia after being released. He needed medical care and therapy to help him cope with reintegration. The COI cleared him of all related crime and suspicion, and helped Rivera pay for mental and physical health services.

Christopher Coleman was arrested and charged in Peoria for multiple crimes. He served 19 years in prison before the Illinois Supreme Court reversed his conviction. After receiving a COI, Illinois paid him $220,000 in compensation and he no longer lived under the shadow of suspicion.

Jason Strong was arrested in 1999 and spent more than 15 years in prison for a murder in Lake County he did not commit. The wrongful conviction "tarnished his name and his record, making it more difficult for him to obtain a job and return to a normal life," according to Brady's brief. When he was released, Strong did not have money for health care, student loans or purchasing a car. The COI funds helped him break a "vicious cycle," Brady wrote.

For many exonerees an acquittal is only a first step in establishing innocence. COIs help them get back on their feet financially. The certificates provide innocent people a better chance at starting over after being released from prison. The people who receive COIs often use the related funds for necessities such as food, transportation and housing. And perhaps most importantly, the COI is vindication for those who have been wrongfully convicted.

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