He helped free 15 innocent people in Illinois from prison. Now he's focused on family

Steven Spearie
State Journal-Register
John Hanlon, at right, with exoneree Angel Gonzalez and Illinois Innocence Project founding member Larry Golden, left. Hanlon, the IIP's executive director, is retiring June 30. [Courtesy of UIS]

Larry Golden said getting John Hanlon to come over to the Illinois Innocence Project in 2011 was "incredibly fortuitous."

The project, based at the University of Illinois Springfield, was able to entice Hanlon after landing a major federal grant, said Golden, the project's founding member. 

Hanlon had been the assistant deputy defender for the Office of the Illinois Appellate Defender's Capital Litigation Unit since 2000. But in 2011, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn abolished the death penalty after a decadelong moratorium, meaning Hanlon would have to move to another OSAD office or find another job.

"It was time to do something else very challenging and here's a fledgling innocence project — no lawyers, no money at that time and a lot of uncertainty in how to pull it all together — so it was a challenge big time," Hanlon said. "It was also a chance to work with Larry Golden. Larry has done such incredible work in the Springfield community and Sangamon County for so long. To work with him, the chance to learn from him has been irreplaceable."

Hanlon, 63, is retiring as the executive director of the IIP,  one of three innocence organizations in the state.

John Hanlon

Hanlon leaves on June 30. He recently moved to Champaign to be closer to his daughter, Aly, and son, Will, and grandchildren. Another daughter, Jessica, lives in the Chicagoland area.

Golden said Hanlon, a criminal defense attorney who worked mostly on the appellate defense of death penalty cases, including one of the most celebrated cases in the country, elevated the project to national status.

"The fact of the matter is that under his leadership the project has become one of the most important innocence organizations in the country," said Golden. 

Hanlon has been quintessential in reform — another prong of the IIP's mission, Golden added.

In 2018, Hanlon helped promulgate what was considered the nation's leading jailhouse informant legislation. Illinois became the first state to require judges to hold pre-trial reliability hearings before jailhouse informant witness testimony is used.

A bill pending in the Illinois House that another IIP attorney, Lauren Kaeseberg helped craft would bar the use of deceptive techniques in the interrogation of juveniles.  

"This legislation essentially is to say quit trying to trick and coerce juveniles," Hanlon said.

Hanlon's first job as an attorney was working on direct appeals in non-death penalty cases in OSAD's Fourth District office in Springfield in 1983. Deputy Defender Dan Yuhas approached Hanlon about working a death penalty case with another attorney in the office, Tim Gabrielsen.

"I naively said, 'Sure, I'm in,'" Hanlon recalled. "It was an amazing opportunity."

The case was Rolando Cruz, who had been convicted of the abduction, rape and murder of 10-year-old Jeanine Nicarico in DuPage County. Cruz's conviction was struck down by the Illinois Supreme Court in 1988. 

Cruz would be convicted a second time and ultimately get a third trial before being acquitted.

"(It proved) in big picture, high profile cases these terrible mistakes are made," said Hanlon, who reunited with Cruz and Gabrielsen in DeKalb earlier this month.

Hanlon worked on several other death penalty cases where people were proven to be innocent, including Joe Burrows, Ronald Kitchen and Randy Steidl.

"If innocent people were going to death row (in Illinois), then innocent people were being convicted in other circumstances besides capital cases," Hanlon said. "It was a great opportunity to work on what I consider to the biggest problem, one of them, of the criminal justice system."

Under Hanlon, IIP’s work has led to the release of 15 innocent individuals, and the posthumous exoneration of another, who were wrongfully convicted and imprisoned in Illinois.

One of Hanlon's most memorable exonerations at IIP was also his first.

John Grayson was exonerated in 2012 after two Aurora police officers developed information that Grayson had been innocent of the crime that had put him in prison for 12 years.

Seven months after Hanlon taking up the case, Grayson walked from the Kane County courthouse a free man.

"That case impressed me because (the prosecution and law enforcement) were starting to get it," Hanlon said. "Every case has its own I-can't-believe-that-happened-factor. Every single one. It's not just about false confessions and bad eyewitness testimony. There's just some incredible human factors that go into them and existential factors that go into every single case."

Earlier this year, the IIP won Norman Propst, formerly of Chicago, a pardon from Gov. JB Pritzker.

Propst, who was wrongfully convicted twice in Illinois, was working as a community organizer in Georgia, helping to co-found an Atlanta chapter of Black Lives Matter. Propst's convictions made it difficult for him to return to college to try to earn a social work degree, Hanlon said.

"This guy absolutely stole my heart," Hanlon said. "He's been out of prison for a long time and his case doesn't meet our criteria, but his message is so inspiring that it's a great story for the IIP to tell."

"The passion John has for people who have suffered these kinds of injustices is incredible," Golden added.

Hanlon worked three different stints with the State Appellate Defender, including the Supreme Court unit, where he worked with capital cases under deputy defender Charles Schiedel.

"Working with and for Chuck Schiedel was a life-enhancing experience," Hanlon said. "He's one of the most brilliant, caring people that I could ever have that good fortune with. OSAD was a one-in-a-million agency with great people, great missions."

Hanlon said he still marvels at the advancement of science and evidence in the field since he started.

"In 1983, as a young lawyer, if I was told a case involved a confession, I thought he's guilty," Hanlon said. "Case over. If it involves an eyewitness, oh he's guilty. Case over. Blood match? He's guilty. Case over.

"When I started as a lawyer, there was no such thing as an innocence project or innocence organization and there was no such thing as even the forensic application of DNA to criminal cases. My job, my profession, my organization, none of that even existed. So that's a reminder to me of how far we've come."

Hanlon said he was grateful to the IIP staff, UIS and the project's supporters and donors.

"I am extremely honored to have been involved in this work." 

Contact Steven Spearie: 217-622-1788,,