Willie T. "Timmy" Donald, who was convicted of murder in 1992, used to think he had good friends at the Medill School of Journalism. But now associate dean Mary Nesbitt won't even answer his letters. I respect her position but have more sympathy for his.
In late April a letter from Donald came to me from out of the blue. "I've been incarcerated for twenty years for a crime I did not commit," it began. Six years ago he'd asked the famous Medill Innocence Project to help him. "David Protess and his students started investigating my case. I enjoyed working with David and his students because they seemed eager to find the truth. In the early stages of 2009, crucial evidence began to surface, evidence so crucial it had the potential to exonerate me."
But 2009 was the year Protess, founder of the Medill Innocence Project, began his fall from grace. Skeptical of the project's claim that a prisoner named Anthony McKinney was innocent of a 1978 murder, Cook County state's attorney Anita Alvarez subpoenaed the "notes, memoranda, reports and summaries" from the Protess team's investigation. Medill and Northwestern University joined Protess in fighting the subpoena, but in 2010 the alliance collapsed. Medill and the university accused Protess of "knowingly making false and misleading statements" to university attorneys and Medill's dean, and last spring Medill took away his classes. So Protess "retired," declaring that he would launch a new, unaffiliated Chicago Innocence Project, open to students from anywhere.
In the uproar, McKinney's petition for a new trial went nowhere. Donald, following the drama as best he could from a prison cell in Miami, Indiana, felt just as marginalized. "It's been nearly three years since I heard from the MIP," his letter told me. "My family have called and left messages but they never returned their calls. I don't even know the status of my case, because the MIP are refusing to contact me."
Early this year he wrote two letters to Nesbitt. "Since 2009, no progress has been made," said the first. (Donald provided me with copies.) "I would like to move forward so I have decided to go in another direction. . . . I feel comfortable working with Mr. Protess and I would like him to continue to work on my case. I'm giving the Medill Innocence Project permission to hand over my files to Mr. Protess."
Nesbitt did not write back. Donald's second letter made no attempt to hide his desperation. "Since 2009, there has been total silence," he told her. "If I want to move in a different direction, I should have the right to make that decision. Your organization does not have the right to make that decision for me."
Again Nesbitt did not reply to Donald. Then he wrote me.
"They have shoved my case under the rug," he told me, "and have not given me an explanation, as to why they are refusing to let another organization look into my case. I'm writing this particular letter not to bring shame to their organization but to bring to light their disturbing behavior. I want their unfair treatment of me to be known to the public. I hope and pray you will share this information with others. An innocent man is suffering because of their actions."
Nesbitt would not discuss Donald with me on the record.
Donald's troubles date to the night of February 27, 1992, when Gary, Indiana, was hammered by five armed robberies—all believed at first to have been committed by the same gunman, a man described as having an acne-scarred face. One victim, Bernard Jimenez, was accosted in his driveway with his fiancee and young children, and when he resisted he was shot to death.
Gary police happened to have a mug shot of Donald because three years earlier he'd been arrested for auto theft. (The charge was dropped.) Witnesses to the robberies looked at that mug shot among others, and despite Donald's unscarred face two of them picked it out. One was Jimenez's fiancee. The other was Rhonda Williams, who was robbed of $50 by a man who forced his way into her house. The two women later pointed to Donald in a police lineup.
He was convicted and sentenced to 60 years in prison.
The Medill Innocence Project spent three years on the case. Students uncovered a couple of old documents Donald's trial lawyer apparently hadn't seen: a statement from another robbery victim—a policewoman—that it wasn't Donald who robbed her, and a note from the prosecution's pretrial interview with Williams that said she "can't swear in court that the defendant is the person." The students came up with an alternative suspect, and the project paid about $10,000 to run a DNA test of hairs found on Jimenez's jacket in the hope they'd implicate this other man. But they didn't—or Donald either.
And in an on-camera statement taken by Medill investigator Sergio Serritella, Williams repudiated her ID of Donald. She said she'd picked his mug shot out of the pile because his was the only face that resembled the robber's, but she said that later she saw the actual robber outside her home (at a time when Donald was having lunch at work with a supervisor). She also said she and Jimenez's fiancee had looked at the police pictures together—a violation of protocol if it happened. (The fiancee denied it.)