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He spent 24 years in prison on a wrongful conviction. Now, he's helping other exonerees.

Willie T. Donald currently works with Dr. Nicky Jackson of Purdue University Northwest to help other exonerees get their lives back on track post-prison.

He spent 24 years in prison on a wrongful conviction. Now, he's helping other exonerees.
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Willie T. Donald had spent a total of 24 years in prison as a result of a wrongful conviction when he learned he was finally being exonerated in the year 2016. At the time, he believed his life was about to get "a whole lot better." However, the then-52-year-old man from Indiana soon discovered that life after prison, particularly for someone who had spent over two decades behind bars, was difficult in new ways. He had no savings, no car, no safety net, and no job prospects. Thankfully, he met Dr. Nicky Jackson, an associate criminal justice professor at Purdue University Northwest, shortly after he was released. Not only did she help Donald gain his footing, but she was on a mission to aid other exonerees like him. Since then, the two have worked together to establish The Willie T. Donald Exoneration Advisory Coalition, an initiative to connect exonerees to the resources they need to get their lives back on track, PEOPLE Magazine reports.



At the outset, Dr. Jackson helped Donald gain access to a part-time job and a car. Thankfully, he had his family, which helped his case. She explained, "If you came out of prison in Indiana, because you're innocent, they did nothing for you. It was by the grace of God that he had his family. I wanted to make some changes." To this end, for almost two years, she initiated conversations with local leaders about helping exonerees. Most notably, she met with Indiana state Representative Greg Steuerwald who was in 2019 responsible for authoring new legislation that compensates exonerees for the "soul-robbing years" they spent in prison. In 2020, she successfully launched The Willie T. Donald Exoneration Advisory Coalition in collaboration with Donald himself.



One of the challenges he faced during his post-prison life was learning how to use new technology. Although the exoneree earned two college degrees in prison, he had trouble operating 21st-century technology that most folks take for granted. "I never saw a Keurig machine before," he shared. "So, I got the little cup thing and peeled the top of it off and put the coffee in a cup and put some hot water in." Moreover, there are even bigger hurdles. For example, while he has officially been exonerated, the charges will remain on his record until and unless he is able to have them expunged (at his expense). These are some of the challenges that the coalition hopes to help exonerees navigate.



When Donald is not working, he spends his time helping Dr. Jackson (who he refers to as his "big sister") with the coalition as a member of the board. According to the exoneree, his friendship with her has helped him get through some of his most difficult days. "Not everyone has a Mrs. Jackson," he stated. "She helped me out so much." Jackson confirmed that the feeling is mutual: "My life has changed and been enriched more so maybe than even Mr. Donald's. He's given me so much." In addition to this, the self-described "family man" spends lots of time with his family and his girlfriend of four years.


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