PNW Inaugurates New Center for Post-Exoneration Justice and Assistance

PNW Inaugurates New Center for Post-Exoneration Justice and Assistance

Nicky Jackson speaks at the Center for Justice and Post-Exoneration Assistance dinner on Thursday.

MUNSTER – On January 27, 2016, Gary resident Willie “Timmy” Donald was released from prison after spending 24 years behind bars for a crime he did not commit.

Twenty-four years without freedom. Now he had a second chance for the opportunity in life that had been stolen from him.

Freedom, however, came at a cost.

When wrongfully convicted people are exonerated, they have no resources at their disposal, according to Nicky Ali Jackson, executive director of the Center for Justice and Post-Exoneration at Purdue University Northwest. Donald had none.

Jackson created a team of people to provide services to these people with the goal of reintegrating them into society, promoting education and legislation to avoid these injustices, and healing wounds caused by a system ostensibly created to protect them. .

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“We are all different individuals with the same goal: we want people to be held accountable,” Jackson said. “We are not here to blame anyone. We are here to educate and inform.

The Northwestern Purdue University Center for Post-Exoneration Justice and Relief held its first event on Thursday evening at the Munster Center for Visual and Performing Arts. Over dinner, the CJPA unveiled its advisory board, discussed its mission and the need for its work for exonerated people everywhere, and heard testimony from exonerated Roosevelt Glen Sr. and Yusef Salaam, poet, teacher , activist and one of the five men. who was exonerated in the Central Park jogger case.

Eddie Gill, Chairman of the CJPA Board of Directors, introduced Jackson to the audience. When it was introduced to him, he said, he was inspired by his work and wanted to get involved.

Center for Post-Exoneration Justice and Relief Board Chairman Eddie Gill, left, chats with exonerated Timmy Donald.

“It’s tragic to me that we even have exonerated,” Gill said. “That it’s even a thing is amazing to me.

The CJPA works with several goals in mind and one central mission: to seek justice for those wrongfully convicted. The center highlights five key points in their journey to fairness: law reform, reviewing letters from incarcerated people asking for help with a wrongful conviction, helping the exonerated, rebuilding relationships, and educational programming.

Since 1989, 3,248 people have been exonerated, according to the National Exemption Registry. More than 27,200 years of life were lost, Jackson said. In Indiana, 42 people have been exonerated since 1989.

“An estimated 167,000 innocent inmates are in prison in this country,” Jackson said.

Three Lake County exonerates — Donald, Glen and Darryl Pinkins — were in attendance at the event. A minute’s silence was observed for Rae Anthony Smith, a Hammond man who was wrongfully convicted after spending 17 years in prison, who died in 2006. His two daughters attended the dinner on his behalf.

The event honored several supporters of the center’s mission with awards, including Thomas Vaines, Donald’s attorney and recipient of the Uncuff the Innocent award; Jason Flom, host of the “Wrongful Convictions” podcast and recipient of the Freedom Fighter Award, Alicia Dennis and KC Baker of People magazine and recipients of the Justice Through Journalism Award; Lisa Lillien, CJPA board member, author of the “Hungry Girl” cookbook series and recipient of the “Voice for Truth and Justice” award; Governor Eric Holcomb, recipient of the Champion for Justice Award; and Steve Simon, owner of the Indiana Pacers and recipient of the Heart of a Humanitarian award.

Simon, who made a large donation to support CJPA efforts, said the Pacers are committed to using their voice and resources to champion multiple causes, including criminal justice reform.

Central Park 5 Exoneree Yusef Salaam speaks at the Center for Justice and Post-Exoneration Assistance dinner on Thursday.

“A structurally broken system needs to be reinvented,” Simon said. “However you get into the system, especially if you’re wrongfully convicted, you need all kinds of support. Nicky emphasizes a system that historically doesn’t have much compassion and empathy.”

The CJPA was born of a friendship between Jackson and Donald, Project Manager for the CJPA, just three weeks after his release from prison.

Jackson read an article about Donald’s release and wanted to know more about his story. She called her attorney, Tom Vaines, and the county attorney. They both said Donald spent 24 years in prison for a crime he did not commit.

Donald was innocent, they told him.

“I just sat in my car and cried,” Jackson said. “I felt so angry and so emotional to help.”

Jackson asked Vaines if Donald would be willing to talk to him about his case, and Vaines said he would.

Together they created the Willie T. Donald Exoneration Advisory Coalition in 2020 to raise awareness and support those who have been wrongfully convicted in Indiana. The coalition is adjacent to the CJPA Board of Directors.

“I thought it would be good for me to help others in situations like mine,” Donald said.

Donald’s story was picked up by People magazine in 2021 and featured in People Magazine Investigates in 2022. This helped the case gain greater national recognition and raised awareness of their mission. They began to receive letters from incarcerated people across the country, curious if Jackson and Donald could help review their case.

Of the cases they’ve received since opening, only 1% are absolutely feasible, Jackson said.

When the CJPA receives a letter from an incarcerated person, the first person to review it is Donald. He has reviewed the letters daily since the center opened in March.

“There’s no better person to understand a case than an exonerated person,” Jackson said. “They have a very different goal. He can look at a case and break it down factually, not emotionally.

Students taking the Jackson Wrongful Conviction course can also be part of the process, reviewing records and doing research.

“Students are active participants at the center,” Jackson said. “They review the case, do research and make a presentation to find out if they think the case deserves further consideration.”

Exoneree Roosevelt Glenn Sr. addresses the CJPA dinner Thursday.

Along with the letter, those incarcerated will often send copies of documents related to their case. If a case warrants further investigation, the CJPA will request more information and engage an attorney.

Jackson said she wanted to eliminate a misconception about the center: They don’t work to exonerate criminals. Every individual they strive to exonerate, she said, is innocent.

“People have a very hard time believing they had no part in the crime,” Jackson said. “These people are victims. They are survivors.

Although the exonerated don’t get any resources, they don’t get an apology either.

“Nothing happens to the police, to the prosecutors, nothing,” Jackson said. “People who did this got away with it.”

The state of Indiana passed a law to prevent wrongful convictions and compensate those wrongfully convicted. Holcomb signed a bill in 2019 to provide $50,000 in compensation to those wrongfully convicted and signed a bill in 2022 to establish requirements for the disposition of evidence related to an offense, including DNA testing after conviction.

Those accused of these crimes continue to pay the price years later in the form of trauma, broken relationships and mental health issues. There hasn’t been one place to help these people heal, Jackson said, until now.

“There’s barrier after barrier for these people,” Jackson said. “Freedom is never free.”

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