For two decades, Jamie Snow has fought his McLean County murder conviction, but his battle with an infectious disease that has killed 12 of his fellow inmates may pose the biggest threat to his life.
Snow is serving a life sentence at Stateville Correctional Center in the death of Bill Little, a clerk who was fatally shot behind the counter of a Bloomington gas station on Easter Sunday 1991. The Exoneration Project is representing Snow in his effort.
Lawyers for the 55-year-old defendant have asked Gov. JB Pritzker to consider clemency for Snow, based upon the risk he and other inmates face from the spread of COVID-19 in the state’s prison system.
According to the Department of Corrections, more than 150 staff and 160 inmates have tested positive for the virus. Twelve inmates, all housed at Stateville, have died since March.
In an April email to WGLT, Snow described life in the Joliet facility as “some sort of B-rated horror movie.” The arrival of the Illinois National Guard to assist with health care was a major improvement, he said.
Defense lawyer Tara Thompson argued in Snow’s petition for emergency clemency or an immediate commutation of sentence that her client “was not sentenced to die in prison.”
Thompson acknowledged the request amounts to “asking for something that is both great and also the most basic ask could have – to make sure that Jamie Snow can live long enough to prove his innocence through the Illinois courts.”
Snow’s request, filed in McLean County for additional forensic testing on evidence, has been delayed indefinitely because of the reduced operations of Illinois courts, said Thompson.
In her letter of support for Snow, Amber Brunati of Lake Villa, told Pritzker “there is no longer a death penalty in Illinois, yet the IDOC is playing Russian Roulette with inmates. This is a horrifying prospect for all inmates across the country.” Brunati noted Snow recently recovered from a serious illness that compromised his immune system.
Pritzker has granted 20 petitions for clemency so far, all processed through the Prisoner Review Board.
The governor has received push back from law enforcement organizations and Senate Republicans who question whether the releases are a risk to public safety. Critics also want the governor to disclose his reasons for granting clemency in those cases.
The threat posed by the coronavirus is especially dire for inmates who are in the process of challenging their convictions, said John Hanlon, executive director of the Springfield-based Illinois Innocence Project (IIP). Among the project's clients is Bart McNeil, a Bloomington man with a post-conviction innocence claim in the 1998 suffocation death of his 3-year-old daughter.
Hanlon said the IIP has requested the release of several clients with “bona fide claims of innocence.”
The clemency petitions are filed on behalf of inmates with underlying health conditions and whose age also puts them in a high-risk category for the virus, said Hanlon.
The threat of a contagious disease spreading through the prison system is a concern for every inmate, but for those with unresolved innocence claims, the virus is a ticking time bomb, say advocates for would-be exonerees.
“The fear is heightened when you’re talking about an innocent person serving time for a crime they didn’t commit. For some people, that means they may not get their day in court,” said Andrea Lewis, clinical assistant professor and staff attorney with the Center on Wrongful Convictions, based at Northwestern University School of Law in Chicago.
On average, a person will serve about 13 years in prison before the exoneration process is completed. But many cases take decades to conclude.
The process takes a toll on defendants, Hanlon noted.
“Innocence cases take time. Many of the people we represent are old. With a serious health condition like this virus, it’s better to seek release sooner rather than later,” he said.
About 45 percent of Illinois’ inmates are over age 50 and a couple dozen are over age 80. All are living in prisons constructed more than a century ago.
Alan Mills, executive director of the People’s Uptown Law Center, has described COVID-19 as “a slow motion death penalty” within Illinois prisons. Inmates’ close proximity to one another and to staff, combined with a flawed health care system, puts everyone in state facilities at risk, according to Mills.
Pritker has been open to the early release of inmates in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak. More than 1,000 inmates have been released based on their medical conditions, or the short time remaining on their sentences, including those convicted of crimes where no one was injured.
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