SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (WCIA) — A man whose lawyers say was wrongly convicted twice in the 1990s has been granted a full pardon by Governor J.B. Pritzker.
The University of Illinois at Springfield’s Illinois Innocence Project (IIP) announced Friday that Norman Propst was pardoned after trying to clear his name for decades.
“We are thrilled that the Governor has granted clemency to Norman Propst for these wrongful convictions,” says IIP Director John Hanlon, who helped represent him in his case.
“So many unjust convictions have occurred to innocent young Black men in Chicago. Unfortunately, Norman suffered for that reality. We are, however, so proud of the unselfish and successful way that he has devoted himself to his community since he left Chicago. It’s really quite a story.”
An IIP press release says in 1990, Propst was convicted of a robbery after an investigation by Chicago Police that was “based on a notoriously unreliable eyewitness identification.”
The identification method used was a ‘show-up’ — that’s when a single suspect is presented to a witness, who is then asked to confirm whether they’re the perpetrator of a crime.
The IIP says Propst decided to accept a plea deal to avoid the trauma of additional court hearings, all while knowing his mother was suffering from serious health issues and he was facing a 15-year sentence.
Nationwide, 20% of exonerations involve guilty pleas, according to the National Registry of Exonerations.
The release says Propst was jailed for several months in Cook County and completed 4 years of probation. The IIP also says his convictions have kept him from completing his degree in social work.
The IIP says Propst was also convicted in 1997 for theft after a book was taken from the Borders Bookstore he worked at. He maintained that he was innocent, the release says, yet he ultimately pleaded guilty and got a 6-month parole sentence to again avoid more court proceedings.
The release says his managers at Borders insisted no crime had occurred — one of them even resigned from their job in support of Propst.
The IIP says his life circumstances illustrate the factors that make people more vulnerable to wrongful convictions. He suffered from severe childhood traumas, saw his brother commit suicide, and has speech and hearing impairments and PTSD.
The IIP says Propst has dedicated his life to helping others — all while working to clear his name.
The release says he co-founded the Atlanta Black Lives Matter chapter. He also helped form the Alliance for Black Lives, which is a social ‘injustice’ activist group in Atlanta that fights racism, poverty, and militarism.
Propst also played a leading role in securing Gwinnett County commissioners’ votes to remove a confederate monument in Lawrenceville, Ga., according to the IIP.
His convictions have held him back from attending a college that specifically caters to people with hearing impairments and getting his degree in social work, says the release.
Propst has also served as a community organizer. IIP says he has worked with groups that help unhoused people; he speaks at public schools; he advocates for LGBTQ rights, mental health awareness, and the “Fight for $15” minimum wage movement; and he speaks out against gun violence, voter suppression, and police brutality.
Kaylan Schardan, a second-year law student at St. Louis University School of Law, provided critical support in drafting Propst’s pardon petition when volunteering for the IIP in 2019.
With Hanlon’s guidance, she researched and co-wrote his petition requesting a gubernatorial pardon based on strong evidence of innocence, the IIP says. She then co-argued the petition in front of the Illinois Prisoner Review Board.
“Working on Norman’s case with the Illinois Innocence Project not only gave me valuable legal experience but also allowed me to meet wonderful people like him,” Schardan said. “Norman has waited decades to clear his name. I am honored to be a part of his journey toward justice. My time with the Project showed me the great need for post-conviction legal advocates. It’s not easy work, but it is the most rewarding.”
“The important thing in Norman’s case is not just about the time he served; rather, it’s about the fact that he now will have the ability to go to college, get a degree in social work and then get a job helping kids improve their lives. That has been his life’s dream. He could not do any of those things with these convictions hanging over him. He has already done incredible work in his community, but now he can greatly enhance that without the legal and practical burdens posed by the wrongful convictions.”Kaylan Schardan, IIP volunteer.