Convict speaks on wrongful convictions, DNA testing

Kira Lerner

Video by Trevor Seela.

Johnnie Lee Savory spent more than 30 years of his life in prison for a crime he says he did not commit.

In an event hosted by the Northwestern College Democrats, Savory spoke at the McCormick Tribune Center on Tuesday night about wrongful convictions and his fight to have DNA testing prove his innocence. Steve Drizin, Savory’s lead attorney and director of NU School of Law’s Center on Wrongful Convictions, also spoke about Savory’s ongoing struggle with the justice system.

Weinberg junior Mac LeBuhn organized the event to raise awareness about wrongful convictions and inform students about how they can help. LeBuhn heard Savory’s story while interning at the Center on Wrongful Convictions during Winter Quarter.

“He has such a compelling case,” said LeBuhn, the special projects chairman for College Democrats. “The average student will find this very compelling and hopefully want to get involved.”

At age 14, Savory was arrested for the murder of two of his friends in Peoria, Ill. A bloody pair of pants taken from his home and other physical evidence was used against him, but according to the Center on Wrongful Convictions, the pants belonged to his father and the other items had no evidentiary value. Savory said he was forced to confess after a lengthy and harsh interrogation.

After he was convicted with what he described as weak evidence and a questionable confession, Savory spent more than two-thirds of his life behind bars.

“I was clinging to the promise that the truth would win out,” he said.

Savory said he did not let the prison culture influence him and even organized campaigns from prison to help victims of disasters like Hurricane Katrina. He said he was able to successfully reintegrate into society on parole in 2006, and now works at a facility helping inmates transition out of prison.

“It is imperative that I speak to other people about what I’ve been through,” he said. “Who better is there to awaken the consciousness of others than the people who have lived it?”

At the time of his conviction, DNA evidence was not available. As this technology developed, prosecutors continued to refuse the tests that could establish Savory’s innocence.

The Center on Wrongful Convictions continues to fight alongside Savory to have the governor order DNA testing.

Both Savory and Drizin spoke about how students can become involved in fights against wrongful convictions.

“You can be one of Johnnie’s many supporters,” Drizin said. “You can call Governor Quinn and ask him to order DNA testing for Johnnie Lee Savory. Let’s all work together to repair this broken world and broken justice system.”

While speaking with a group of students after the event, Savory told them to spread the word around campus that injustices do exist and they can happen to anyone.

“Injustice has touched every man and woman from all walks of life,” he said. “Injustice is like a stray bullet. It doesn’t care where it lands.”

Drizin said now is an exciting time to be a young person concerned with injustice and innocence movements.

“It’s just at the beginning,” he said. “There are going to be many, many more exonerations based on DNA evidence.”

Though the speakers were hosted by College Democrats, LeBuhn said issues of wrongful conviction transcend political views.

“It’s not simply a question of Democrats versus Republicans,” he said. “There’s a common interest among Americans in making sure the people we’re sending to jail actually committed the crimes.”

According to the Center on Wrongful Convictions, 13 men have been released from Illinois death row in the last 15 years.

“There has been an ongoing effort to spread his story to as many people as possible,” LeBuhn said. “If this can happen to one person, it can happen to anyone else. As long as we have a system that allows innocent people to go to prison, it’s a detriment to everybody.”

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