Former Medill Innocence Project client exonerated after serving more than 23 years


Source: Thomas Vanes

Willie Donald embraces his mother, Lillie Donald, as he exits the Lake County Jail in Crown Point, Indiana. Donald was exonerated of robbery and murder charges after serving more than 23 years in prison.

Madeline Fox, Campus Editor

Willie Donald, a former client of the Medill Innocence Project, was released from prison Thursday morning after his 1992 conviction for robbery and murder was overturned.

Donald, 47, was sentenced to 60 years in prison for a series of armed robberies — in which one victim was shot and later died from his injuries — in Gary, Indiana, on Feb. 27 of that year.

One of the robbery victims, Rhonda Fleming, identified Donald as the robber in a 1992 lineup but later recanted her testimony, first to members of the Medill Innocence Project and later in a 2013 deposition, said David Protess, former head of the Medill Innocence Project and founder of the Chicago Innocence Center, formerly called the Chicago Innocence Project.

Protess said he was thrilled to hear of Donald’s release.

“It seems like this kind of thing happens all the time from news reports, but it doesn’t happen nearly enough,” Protess said of Donald’s exoneration.

The Medill Innocence Project, renamed the Medill Justice Project in December 2012, agreed to take Donald’s case in March 2007, Protess said, with the full-blown investigation beginning that fall when students arrived on campus. After Protess left the Medill Innocence Project in 2011 following ethical questions about its investigation into the murder conviction of Anthony Porter, Protess said the Chicago Innocence Project picked up Donald’s case.

Following Donald’s conviction, there were several hearings in Crown Point, Indiana, to determine whether law enforcement withheld evidence in the case, said Thomas Vanes, Donald’s defense attorney, who took over his case in 2006. Donald then filed an appeal with the Indiana Court of Appeals, Vanes added. He also said the prosecution’s case rested heavily on Fleming’s later recanted testimony.

“He is innocent,” Vanes said. “I don’t use that word lightly or recklessly, but this is one case where it fits.”

Donald’s conviction was overturned Monday, and he was released Thursday — after serving more than 23 years — after prosecutors declined to further pursue his case, Vanes said.

Donald, at home with his family, said Protess and the Medill Innocence Project went “full tilt” on his case, with some students continuing to check in on him even after they graduated.

He particularly noted a letter from Eimear Lynch (Medill ’08), who worked on Donald’s case for the Medill Innocence Project until her graduation in June 2008.

“One time when my spirits were kind of low, Eimear Lynch wrote me a letter giving me some encouragement,” Donald said. “I still have that letter. I took it out anytime I felt low.”

Donald, who earned a bachelor’s degree in prison, said he would like to pursue a master’s now that he has been cleared of all charges.

Protess, too, said he hopes Donald will be able to resume his life now that he has been released.

“It’s a big day for justice,” Protess said. “I’m very hopeful that he will adjust well.”

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