Nikki Jackson speaks at the Center for Justice and Aid’s post-acquittal dinner on Thursday.
Monster – On January 27, 2016, Gary’s 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 life chance that had been stolen from him.
But freedom came at a cost.
When wrongfully convicted individuals are acquitted, they don’t have the resources available to them, according to Nikki Ali Jackson, executive director of the Center for Justice and Post-acquittal at Purdue Northwest University. Donald had nothing.
Jackson created a team of people to provide services to these individuals with the goal of reintegration into society, promoting education and legislation to avoid these grievances and heal the 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 to hold people accountable,” Jackson said. We are not here to blame anyone. We are here to educate and inform.”
Purdue University’s Center for Justice and Aid Post-Winning held its first event Thursday night at the Center for the Visual and Performing Arts in Münster. Over dinner, CJPA revealed its advisory board, discussed its mission and necessity for outlaws everywhere, and heard testimony from exoneree Roosevelt Glenn Sr. and Joseph Salam, poet, teacher, activist and one of the five men acquitted in the Central Park jogging case.
Eddie Gill, CJPA Chairman, introduced Jackson to the audience. He said that when he got to know her, he was inspired by her work and wanted to get involved.
Center for Justice and Post-Way Assistance Board Chairman Eddie Gill, left, talks with exoneree Timmy Donald.
“It’s tragic to me that we even have your acquittal,” Jill said. “It’s even an amazing thing 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 justice: legislative reform, reviewing letters from prisoners seeking help with wrongful convictions, helping outlaws, rebuilding relationships, and educational programming.
Since 1989, 3,248 people have been acquitted, according to National register of acquittal. Jackson said that more than 27,200 years of life have been lost. In Indiana, 42 individuals have been acquitted since 1989.
“An estimated 167,000 innocent inmates languish in prisons in this country,” Jackson said.
Three people from Lake County attended the event – Donald, Glenn, and Daryl Benkins. It was a moment of silence for Ray Anthony Smith, a Hammond man who was wrongfully convicted after spending 17 years in prison, and died in 2006. His two daughters attended dinner on his behalf.
Several supporters of the center’s mission were honored with awards at the ceremony, including Thomas Vines, Donald’s attorney and recipient of the Uncuff the Innocent Award; Jason Flom, host of the “Wrongful Conventions” podcast and winner of Freedom Fighter Award, Alicia Dennis Magazine, KC Baker of People magazine and recipient of the Justice Through Journalism award; Lisa Lillen, CJPA Board Member, author of the “Hungry Girl” cookbook series and winner of the “Voice for Truth and Justice” award; Governor Eric Holcomb, Champion of Justice award winner; and Steve Simon, owner of the Indiana Pacers and winner of the Human Heart Award.
Simon, who made a large donation to support CJPA efforts, said 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 Post-Exemption Justice and Assistance Center dinner on Thursday.
“The structurally broken system needs to be revamped,” Simon said. “Any way you get into the system, especially if you’re wrongly convicted, you need all kinds of support. Nikki is focused on a system that has historically not had a lot of empathy and empathy.”
CJPA grew out of a friendship between Jackson and Donald, the director of the CJPA Project, just three weeks after his release from prison.
Jackson read an article about Donald’s release, and wanted to know more about his story. I called his attorney, Tom Vines, and the district attorney. Both said Donald spent 24 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.
They told her that Donald is innocent.
“I just sat in my car and cried,” Jackson said. “I was very angry and 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 Waiver Advisory Alliance Willie T. Donald in 2020 to raise awareness and support for those unjustly convicted in Indiana. The Alliance stands next to the CJPA Board of Directors.
“I thought it was good for my heart to help others in situations like mine,” Donald said.
Donald’s story was captured by People Magazine in 2021 and featured in People Magazine Investigates in 2022. The cause has helped gain more national recognition and raise awareness of its mission. They began receiving letters from prisoners across the country, out of curiosity if Jackson and Donald could help review their case.
Of the cases they’ve received since opening, only 1% are entirely possible, Jackson said.
When the CJPA receives a letter from an incarcerated person, the first person to review it is Donald. He’s been reviewing letters daily since the center opened in March.
“There is no better person than innocence,” said Jackson. “They have a very different lens. He can look at the issue and break it down realistically, not emotionally.”
Students who take the Jackson False Conviction course become part of the process as well, reviewing case files and doing research.
“Students are active participants in the center,” Jackson said. “They look at the issue, do research, and make a presentation on whether they think the issue deserves further review.”
Exoneree Roosevelt Glenn Sr. The CJPA dinner addresses Thursday.
Besides the letter, prisoners often send copies of documents related to their case. If there is a case that warrants further review, the CJPA will ask for more information and engage an attorney.
Jackson said she wants to remove one misconception about the center: They don’t work to exonerate criminals. She said that everyone working to exonerate him is innocent.
“People have a very hard time believing they didn’t have a part of the crime,” Jackson said. These people are victims. They are survivors.”
While the exonerees don’t receive the resources, they don’t receive an apology either.
Nothing happens to the police and prosecutors, nothing,” Jackson said. “The people who did this went unharmed.”
The state of Indiana has passed legislation to avoid wrongful convictions and to compensate unjustly convicted individuals. Holcomb Signed law Project In 2019 to provide $50,000 in compensation to unjustly convicted individuals and sign the law Project in 2022 to establish requirements for disposing of evidence relating to crime, including post-conviction DNA testing.
Individuals accused of these crimes continue to pay the price years later in the form of trauma, fractured relationships, and mental health issues. Jackson said there is no single place to help these people recover yet.
“There is barrier after barrier in front of these people,” Jackson said. “Freedom is never free.”