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PNW inaugurates new Center for Justice and Post-Exoneration Assistance

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

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

Twenty-four years without freedom. Now he was given a second chance at the chance at life that had been taken from him.

However, freedom came with a price.

When wrongly convicted individuals are acquitted, 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 didn’t have one.

Jackson created a team of people to provide services to those individuals for the purpose of reintegrating into society, promoting education and legislation to prevent these injustices, and healing the wounds caused by a system ostensibly created to protect them. to protect.

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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.”

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. Over dinner, the CJPA unveiled its advisory board, discussed its mission and the necessity of its work for freedmen everywhere, and heard testimony from freedmen Roosevelt Glen Sr. and Yusef Salaam, a poet, teacher, activist and one of five men acquitted in the Central Park jogger case.

Eddie Gill, chairman 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.

“It’s tragic to me that we even have exonerees,” Gill said. “I love that it’s even just a thing.”

The CJPA works with multiple goals and one central mission: to seek justice for those who have been wrongly convicted. The center highlights five key points in their journey to justice: legislative reform, reviewing letters from inmates seeking help for wrongful convictions, assisting freedmen, rebuilding relationships, and educational programming.

According to the National Registry of Exoneerations, 3,248 people have been acquitted since 1989. More than 27,200 years of life have been lost, Jackson said. In Indiana, 42 people have been acquitted since 1989.

“There are an estimated 167,000 innocent prisoners in prison in this country,” Jackson said.

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

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The event honored multiple 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 podcast “Wrongful Convictions” 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; gov. Eric Holcomb, Champion for Justice award recipient; 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 the CJPA’s efforts, said the Pacers are committed to using their voices 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 on Thursday.

“A structurally broken system has to be reinvented,” Simon said. “Whatever way you get into the system, especially if you’re wrongly convicted, you need all kinds of support. Nicky brings focus to a system that historically lacks a lot of compassion and empathy.”

The CJPA grew out of a friendship between Jackson and Donald, project manager for the CJPA, just 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 district attorney. They both said Donald was in prison for 24 years for a crime he didn’t 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 formed the Willie T. Donald Exoneration Advisory Coalition in 2020 to raise awareness and support those who have been wrongly convicted in Indiana. The coalition stands alongside the CJPA board.

“I thought it would 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 published in People Magazine Investigates in 2022. It helped the cause gain more national recognition and showcased their mission. They began receiving letters from inmates across the country, eager to see if Jackson and Donald could help review their case.

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

When the CJPA receives a letter from a detainee, Donald is the first to assess it. Since the opening of the center in March, he has been going through letters every day.

“There is no better person to solve a case than a freedman,” Jackson said. “They have a very different lens. He can look at a case and actually split it up, not emotionally.”

Students taking Jackson’s wrongful conviction course can also be part of the trial, which involves reviewing files and conducting research.

“Students are active participants at the center,” Jackson said. “They are reviewing the case, investigating and giving a presentation on whether they believe the case should be further reviewed.”

Exoneree Roosevelt Glenn Sr. addresses the CJPA dinner on Thursday.

Inmates often send copies of documents related to their case along with the letter. If a case needs further review, the CJPA will ask for more information and engage a lawyer.

Jackson said she wants to dispel one misconception about the center: They don’t work to exonerate criminals. Any individual they try to exonerate, she said, is innocent.

“People find it very hard to believe that they haven’t had a share in the crime,” Jackson said. “These people are victims. They are survivors.”

While exoneres do not receive funds, they also do not receive apologies.

“Nothing happens to the police, the prosecutors, nothing,” Jackson said. “The people who did this got away unharmed.”

The state of Indiana has passed legislation to prevent wrongful convictions and compensate wrongly convicted persons. Holcomb signed a bill in 2019 to provide $50,000 in damages for wrongly convicted individuals and signed a bill in 2022 to establish requirements for disposing of evidence related to a criminal offense, including post-conviction DNA testing.

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

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

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