PNW inaugurates new Center for Justice and Post-Exoneration Assistance

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

MUNSTER — On January 27, 2016, Gary resident Willie “Timmy” Donald was released from prison after he spent 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 at life that had been stolen from him.

Freedom, however, came with a cost.

When wrongly convicted individuals are exonerated, they have no resources available to them, 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 offer services to those individuals with the goal of reintegration into society, promotion of education and legislation to avoid these injustices and healing from the wounds caused by a system ostensibly created to protect them.

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

Purdue University Northwest’s Center for Justice and Post-Exoneration Assistance held its first event Thursday night at the Center for Visual and Performing Arts in Munster. During the dinner, the CJPA revealed its advisory board, discussed its mission and the necessity of its work for exonerees everywhere, and heard testimony from exoneree Roosevelt Glen Sr. and Yusef Salaam, a poet, teacher, activist and one of the five men who was exonerated in the Central Park jogger case.

Eddie Gill, president of the CJPA board, introduced Jackson to the audience. When he was introduced to her, he said, he was inspired by her work and wanted to be involved.

Center for Justice and Post-Exoneration Assistance board president Eddie Gill, left, chats with exonerated Timmy Donald.

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

The CJPA works with multiple goals in mind and one central mission: to seek justice for those wrongly convicted. The center highlights five key points in their journey for equity: legislative reform, review of letters from incarcerated people seeking help for wrongful conviction, assistance for exonerees, rebuilding relationships and educational programming.

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

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

Three exonerees from Lake County — Donald, Glen and Darryl Pinkins — were at the event. A moment of silence was held for Rae Anthony Smith, a Hammond man who was wrongfully convicted after he spent 17 years in prison, who died in 2006. His two daughters attended the dinner on his behalf.

The event honored multiple supporters of the center’s mission with awards, including Thomas Vaines, Donald’s lawyer 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; Govt. 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 gave a large donation to support the CJPA’s efforts, said the Pacers are committed to using their voice and resources to advocate for multiple causes, including criminal justice reform.

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

“A structurally broken system needs reinvention,” Simon said. “In any way you get into the system, especially if you’re wrongfully convicted, you need all kinds of support. Nicky is bringing focus to a system that doesn’t historically have a lot of compassion and empathy.”

The CJPA blossomed out of a friendship between Jackson and Donald, project manager for the CJPA, just a mere three weeks after he was released from prison.

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

Donald was innocent, they told her.

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

Jackson asked Vaines if Donald would be willing to talk to her 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 stands adjacent to the CJPA board.

“I figured it’d do my heart good to help others in situations like mine,” Donald said.

Donald’s story was picked up by People magazine in 2021 and featured on People Magazine Investigates in 2022. It helped the case gain more national recognition and brought awareness to their mission. They began to receive letters from incarcerated people all over the country, curious if Jackson and Donald could help review their case.

Of the cases they have 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 letters daily since the center opened in March.

“There is no better person to figure out a case than an exoneree,” Jackson said. “They have a very different lens. He can look at a case and break it down factually, not emotionally.”

Students who take Jackson’s wrongful conviction course get to be part of the process as well, reviewing case files and doing research.

“Students are active participants at the center,” Jackson said. “They look at the case, do research, and do a presentation on whether they believe the case merits further review.”

Exoneree Roosevelt Glenn Sr. addresses the CJPA dinner Thursday.

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

Jackson said she wants to eliminate one misconception about the center: they are not working to exonerate criminals. Every individual they work to exonerate, she said, is innocent.

“People have a very hard time believing they didn’t have some part of the crime,” Jackson said. “These people are victims. They are survivors.”

While exonerees don’t receive resources, they don’t receive apologies either.

“Nothing happens to the police, prosecutors, nothing,” Jackson said. “The people who did this have walked away unscathed.”

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

The individuals who were accused of these crimes continue to pay the price years later in the form of trauma, fractured relationships and mental health issues. There has not been one place to help these people heal, Jackson said, until now.

“There is barrier after barrier for these folks,” Jackson said. “Freedom is never free.”