CROWN POINT | A Gary man who has spent more than half his life in prison waiting to be proven innocent of a murder and a robbery soon could be free.
Lake Criminal Court Judge Salvador Vasquez and Magistrate Kathleen A. Sullivan vacated the convictions of 47-year-old Willie T. Donald on Monday and ordered him brought from the Indiana State Prison on Thursday when the Lake County Prosecutor's Office must choose whether to retry him or let him go.
Veteran defense attorney Thomas Vanes, who won this appeal, said he expects charges to be dropped since Donald already has served time for the erroneous conviction, and Rhonda Fleming, who previously said Donald robbed her, has recanted, now believing her identification of him in a 1992 police lineup was a mistake.
And the whereabouts of the man who stuck a gun in Fleming's face and also fatally shot Bernard Jimenez in a separate holdup 24 years ago?
"God only knows; certainly the criminal justice system doesn't," Vanes said Monday.
Lake County Prosecutor Bernard Carter said Monday he was aware of the rulings and is looking into options of what to do next.
The Times featured Donald's case and the work of Vanes and a team of journalism students associated with Northwestern University's Medill Innocence Project in a 2009 series of stories by Christopher Smith and Sarah Tompkins.
There were a series of holdups that took place the night of Feb. 27, 1992, in Gary's Glen Park neighborhood.
Rhonda Fleming told police she was awakened by a knock at her door by a man claiming to be her neighbor. He burst through the open door, held a gun on her, then fled with $50.
Jimenez, his fiancee and their three young daughters were arriving home from shopping when what authorities believe was the same armed man came out of the shadows, grabbed their 7-year-old and demanded money.
Jimenez gave him the less than $20 in his wallet, but the assailant threw the money down, said, "You don't value your family," and put the gun against the cheekbone of their 1-year-old.
Jimenez picked up a small wooden picnic table and threw it at the assailant. The rest of the family, who ran inside, heard gunshots and saw Jimenez, who had chased the offender, collapse on a neighbor's porch from his fatal wounds.
Police suspected Donald, who had previously been arrested on suspicion for minor offenses. Although police recovered no physical evidence, they and the prosecutor's office convinced a jury from the eyewitness identification that Donald was guilty.
The court ruled Monday that Fleming's identification was flawed, and Gary police hid that from Donald and his trial lawyer.
Vanes said, "Before Donald was ever arrested, (Fleming) made a panicked call a few days after the crime to the police saying the guy who robbed me is across the street, come get him. By the time they came, he wasn't there. Donald was at work at that time.
"But that street sighting never made it into court, because the Gary cops never passed that along," he said. The late John Jelks, a Gary detective with a minor role in the investigation, found the discrepancy.
Vanes said Fleming gave testimony in 2013 as part of Donald's appeal that she always had doubts about the identification, but was convinced by police they had the right man.
"It was always a square peg in a round hole. The key descriptor for the robber was an acne-scarred face. No one looking at Donald then would have used that term to describe him," Vanes said.
"Donald had a chance to go home in 2013. The prosecutor was willing to set aside the (Fleming) robbery conviction if he quit fighting the murder conviction.
"He decided, 'I'm not doing that. I don't want people to see me as guilty. I want to keep the fight up.' He has spent the last three years in prison fighting to clear his name when he had the option of going home. No guilty person does that."
"Donald had a chance to go home in 2013. The prosecutor was willing to set aside the (Fleming) robbery conviction if he quit fighting the murder conviction. He decided, 'I'm not doing that. I don't want people to see me as guilty. I want to keep the fight up.' He has spent the last three years in prison fighting to clear his name when he had the option of going home. No guilty person does that." — defense attorney Thomas Vanes