Chris Abernathy walked out of an Illinois prison after nearly 30 years in prison. The 48-year-old had been wrongly convicted of the rape and murder of Kristina Hickey, 15. His freedom came with the help of the Illinois Innocence Project, which pushed for DNA testing.  The IIP gets about 1 request for help a day, mostly from trial lawyers who believe in their clients or from family members. An attorney who was aware of the case from their previous job brought Abernathy’s case to their attention.

Abernathy had confessed and there was only one witness against him, a person who alleged he had confessed to them. They later retracted their testimony.  Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez, who has been heavily criticized in the past for her refusal to take innocence claims seriously has recently been attempting to change that perception. She said that his confession was coerced and she raised questions about his mental capacity.  Students at the University of Illinois Springfield interning with Illinois Innocence Project saw Abernathy walk out of prison. For many of them, it gave the meaning of their work a face and a name.

“It put meaning to everything we were doing,” said Faith Hook, a UIS junior, “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 been reviewing cases. It currently has 35 active cases.

“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…we’re in a very different place,” said Larry Golden, Founding Director.


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