Credit: Christopher Smith | The Times of Northwest Indiana

Willie T. Donald has been imprisoned since 1992 for a robbery and murder in Gary, Indiana, that he always insisted he didn’t commit. Now he might be just a day or two from going free.

Donald’s convictions were reversed Monday by a Lake County court, and he’ll be returned to the local jail from Indiana State Prison to await a hearing Thursday, when prosecutors could say whether they intend to retry him. Donald’s lawyer, Thomas Vanes, tells me he doubts they’ll make up their minds that fast, but he’d be astonished if they reinstate charges.

Donald’s was one of the last cases championed by the Medill Innocence Project when it was run by David Protess. Protess’s fall from grace there over an unrelated investigation, and his ultimate separation from the school, led to a breach between Donald and Medill that was never closed. “It’s been nearly three years since I heard from the MIP,” said Donald in a letter he wrote to me in 2012. “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.” In putting Protess behind it, the overhauled Medill Innocence Project (now the Medill Justice Project) closed the door on Donald too.

Vanes says Protess looked in from time to time to lend encouragement, but that Medill was never heard from again. (I e-mailed Alec Klein, who now heads the Medill Justice Project, for comment but he didn’t get back to me before publication.) In addition, Sarah Tompkins, an investigative reporter who’d written several stories on Donald for the Times of Northwest Indiana and eventually married Sergio Serritella, who was Protess’s investigator in the Donald case, left the Times. Vanes says its coverage became much more sporadic after that. (A Times editor says the paper checked in with Vanes from time to time, but there were few newsworthy developments.) I wrote one long story on Donald, Protess, and Medill in 2012 and lost track of Donald’s case. “For the last few years it’s kind of been me on my own,” says Vanes.

The key development in Donald’s potential release, Vanes says, was finally locating Rhonda Williams. 

The night of February 27, 1992, Gary was hammered by five armed robberies, all believed to have been committed by the same gunman, a man with an acne-scarred face. One of the victims, Bernard Jimenez, resisted, and he was shot to death in front of his fiancee and young children. Another of the victims was Williams, and she picked out Donald from a photo array and then a police lineup.

Donald was convicted and sentenced to 60 years in prison.

In their three years on the case, students and investigators from the Medill Innocence Project uncovered another victim, a policewoman, who said it was not Donald who’d robbed her, and made a video of Williams recanting. She said she’d originally picked out his mug shot because nobody else in the photo array looked anything like the man who’d robbed her, but she’d later seen the actual robber outside her home—at a time when it couldn’t possibly have been Donald.

“For the prosecutors, Medill’s reputation is such now that nothing they produce will stand on its own,” Vanes told me in 2012. That included Serritella’s video of Williams. Prosecutors wanted to talk to her directly, but she’d moved to Florida. Eventually Vanes found her. “She reiterated her belief that the robber was the person across street and not Mr. Donald,” he says. What’s more, she said she’d told police at the time she couldn’t stand by her identification.

Vanes says Lake County Superior Court based its reversal on the failure of the state to share exculpatory evidence with the defense, but he thinks the court also had serious doubts about Donald’s guilt. “In the end,” he reflected in an e-mail to me, “not many years behind bars got saved but a name got cleared, to the extent such is possible in the criminal justice system.” Donald would have been eligible for release regardless in 2021.

Says Protess, “I couldn’t be happier for him. Although his true innocence was established many years ago, today’s ruling is finally a major step toward real justice in his case.”