SPRINGFIELD — An Illinois man is free after getting his 2008 murder conviction vacated following new evidence that revealed he was not responsible for the death of his infant son, partly because of efforts from a group in the state that’s cleared more than a dozen people wrongfully convicted of crimes.
Nathaniel Onsrud, who had been serving a 60-year sentence, was released Tuesday from the Illinois Department of Corrections, The State Journal-Register reported. He's the 15th client to be released or exonerated as part of the Illinois Innocence Project, which was founded in 2001 and headquartered at the University of Illinois Springfield.
The defense counsel didn't look at the exculpatory documents. The Rock Island County State’s Attorney’s Office backed the request of the Innocence Project and a Chicago law firm to vacate the Coal Valley man's conviction. Though the State’s Attorney cautioned that charges against Onsrud still haven't been dismissed.
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“Our client maintained from day one he had nothing to do with the tragic death of his infant son,” said Innocence Project Chicago Legal Director Lauren Kaeseberg. “For the past 13 years, Nathaniel has fought to clear his name and has been through the unimaginable ordeal of losing his baby and then being wrongfully convicted of murdering him.”
Onsrud’s four-month-old son, Dax Llewellyn Lancial, had become unresponsive in May 2007 while in his care after being born 10 weeks premature and battling serious medical complications. The infant was taken to the hospital where he was later pronounced dead.
Initial medical examinations didn't indicate foul play in the case, yet investigators continued focusing on Onsrud, who was subjected to numerous interviews. The investigators subsequently got a confession from Onsrud, whose own attorney encouraged him to plead guilty to first-degree murder charges.
“Our criminal justice system is fundamentally broken,” Kaeseberg said. “And we see that in large part in guilty pleas, where a vast number of people, once they are trapped in the system, take pleas to avoid hefty sentences threatened by the state.”
Illinois has a history of wrongful convictions. Chicago Police Lt. Jon Burge was accused of torturing more than 200 criminal suspects into forced confessions in the 1980s. Former Gov. George Ryan labeled the state’s system of capital punishment “haunted by the demon of error” when he halted executions in 2000. By the time Illinois abolished the Death Penalty in 2011, wrongful death sentences imposed on 20 people had been reversed, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
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