This special edition of the Hult Center Community Conversations podcast is brought to you by the Education and Community Engagement department. Inspired by the Broadway production of To Kill a Mockingbird, we share the story of a Black man, Jerrin Hickman, currently seeking exoneration in the state of Oregon. In this episode, we have the opportunity to speak directly with Jerrin Hickman’s daughter, Imani Wolery. Join us for this important conversation that captures the impact of racial disparities in the criminal justice system.
We will be hosting a Community Conversation (free and open to public) Thursday November 30, 6-7:30pm at the Art House to continue this conversation with panelists from Sponsors Inc., Lane Community College, University of Oregon, and a Lane County public defender (previously with Civil Liberties Defense Center). This Community Conversation will be moderated by Kenya Luvert, local activist and Social Worker.
About Imani: Imani Wolery graduated the University of Oregon in June 2022 with a Bachelor of Arts in pre-law & ethnic studies with a minor in legal studies. She shortly after, moved to New York city where she interned at the NYC innocence project as a legal intake intern. She now is a paralegal and is hoping to pursue law school soon to become a civil rights lawyer. Imani continues to share her dad’s story worldwide to promote awareness of wrongfully imprisoned people, racial injustice in the criminal justice system, and to fight for her dad’s exoneration.
Learn More at #JusticeForJerrin – Eugene Weekly
The following is a transcript from the podcast recording, November 14, 2023.
Correction: Imani would like to correct two statements in the original recording. These are also edited in the transcript below.
“My father was arrested a whole year after the crime, which was New Year’s Eve 2007, arrest was December 8th 2008, and trial was another year later in 2009!”
“Black Americans are wrongfully accused more, misidentified more, sentenced longer, and more likely to be convicted than white Americans. “
Cara: Hello and welcome to the Hult Center Community Conversation Podcast. I’m Cara Bryton and I serve as the Education and Community Engagement Coordinator here at the Hult Center. Our intention with this podcast was to go a little deeper by interviewing community members on subjects related to select performances with this first episode inspired by the Broadway production of To Kill a Mockingbird.
We first connected with our guest, Imani Wolery, when we began the process of searching for panelists for a community conversation happening on November 30th. We came across a Eugene Weekly story profiling Imani’s father, Jerrin Hickman, a black man serving prison time in Oregon who is currently seeking exoneration. Thank you so much, Imani, for taking the time to be here today.
You were a student at the U of O and now are in New York City. Can you tell us more about yourself? What are you passionate about?
Imani: Yeah, so when I went to U of O, I actually double majored in pre-law and ethnic studies with a legal studies minor. I’ve always been like passionate about social justice and racial justice and like diversity and inclusion, but growing up being the daughter of a wrongfully convicted felon made me even more interested in the criminal justice system and like unpacking the evils of the prison industrial conflict. So once I graduated U of O, I was like I need to get out of Oregon, like spread my wings. So I applied to the Innocence Project in San Diego and then I applied for the Innocence Project in New York and I got accepted to be the legal intake intern at the New York Innocence Project. and I got accepted to be a legal intake intern at the New York Innocence Project.
Literally weeks after I graduated college, I moved to New York with only two suitcases, which is hard because how are you supposed to have your whole life, you know, and just go to New York. But I just felt like it was a super big opportunity for me to not only learn more about the legal process of wrongfully convicted cases, but also just get hands on, like experience in the work compared to like more of a personal experience that I already have.
Cara: Can you tell us from your perspective and experience what happened that night your father was arrested?
Imani: Yeah, honestly, I remember that day like yesterday. Like I think about it all the time and I do my own like poetry stuff. And I remember like I still to this day write about that moment because it was just so surreal. So basically the day that my father got arrested, I was coming home on the school bus. I was in elementary school and I remember I was approaching my stop. And I remember the friend that I was sitting next to me, and she looks at me and she’s like, why is there police at your house? And I obviously was just a kid, I turn and I’m like, this has to be a mistake. Like, why is there, there was just a bunch of police cars all like in front of my house. And I was just like, what is going on? I had no idea. So I remember like walking up to my house and my mom, grabs me and she puts me on her lap and then she kind of tells me like everything’s going to be okay but I could kind of tell that she had been crying and that she was like frazzled and I just remember that day the police going through our house and it was very traumatizing because they I remember in my room they were letting out all of my clothes like they were pulling out the drawers letting them out throwing all our stuff breaking all of our valuables and they didn’t care. Like they basically just like a bulldozer through our house and just was like, we don’t care. I didn’t put anything back. And I remember my mom had to use my phone to contact my grandmother and tell her what happened. And so basically what I found out later on is they, my dad went to work that morning and they went to his work and arrested him. And what’s crazy was it was a whole year after the crime, which was New Year’s Eve 2007, and the arrest was December 8th, 2008. So, and then the trial was another year in 2009. So it wasn’t until a whole year that they came and arrested him after like the crime happened.
Cara: How has your father’s imprisonment impacted you and your family’s life?
Imani: Honestly, it’s affected our whole life. Like not only, I’ll kind of go into more depth about how it’s affected, you know, me and my brother’s life, my grandma’s life, my mom’s life, but not only our life, but it’s affected our whole community. It’s affected, you know, relatives. It’s affected everybody. And like my grandma says, like every day is conviction day. Every day we have to start our life sentence all over again because we also feel like we’re in prison.
You know, and I recently heard a song lyric that said, I’ll be in denial for at least a little while. What about the plans you made? And that’s honestly how it’s felt for me. Like, it just feels like every holiday, every Christmas, every birthday, every graduation, every holiday event, every sport, it was just a constant reminder that the state had robbed me of my relationship with my dad.
Like my dad is my best friend. He’s my biggest supporter. And it just feels like it ruined everything. It just completely shook our whole world up. And not only did it affect me and my brother because we didn’t have a father and we didn’t have that support and that protection, that love, but my mom then became a single mother. So it was hard because what’s crazy is my little brother was only about eight months old when my dad got arrested. So he just was born. So like my dad now has been in prison wrongfully convicted for 15 years and my brother is 15. So it’s like a constant, like even in like the age that my brother turns, I think like, wow, this is another year that he’s like not exonerated. This is another year, you know? And then my grandma had to come back and forth between California and Oregon to visit him, then she had to, you know, immediately start paying for, you know, lawyers, attorney fees, travel fees. So it’s just completely shaken our whole world up, to be honest.
Cara: If you could speak for your father, what needs to be said? What would you want folks listening to understand?
Imani: Yeah, so I actually have a direct quote from my dad that I want to read for you guys, because I try to like talk to him as much as I can. He, you know, he calls me. So this is what he said. The denial of due process is intentional. In 2010, at the motion for a new trial, it was established that I was misidentified by two white, sorry, two white Westland women who said all black men look the same. In 2013, the Court of Appeals said I would get a new trial because of the bad idea. In 2014, Palmer, the Oregon Supreme Court, reinstated the conviction using the same evidence that was declared false in 2010. Judge Ahern at the post-conviction relief trial said, both IDs were bad, which was the same position as the Court of Appeals in 2013, but he didn’t grant the trial. But he did acknowledge and add 13 more errors to the previous two already established. The 10 year delay since 2013 has been intentional. This is racism. So basically what he kind of wants to explain to people is that this, his exoneration has kind of been intentional. Like they have every single appeal that we’ve had, every single trial. They continuously say that this was false identification and racial bias, but they continue to just not release him. So that’s why he wants to be known.
Cara: What would the impact be for your father, yourself, family, and community if your father was exonerated?
Imani: Honestly, I think about that every day. Like every day, I’m just like, my family would be whole. My family, I feel like since my dad has been arrested, has been broken, to be honest. I feel like it has separated our family. And I feel like every single day I think about it. Every single day I think about, oh, will my dad come and visit me in New York? You know, he’ll be able to come see me. He’ll be able to watch me grow up, he’ll be able to watch me go to law school, get married, watch me, or just be a support system that I need right now, especially being in my early 20s, it’s hard. So I think it would definitely, I think about it every day, needing his support. And I think it would just really be a life-changing thing for my family. you know, we would be able to do all the things we wanted to do, like take trips, spend holidays together. And I also feel like not only would that happen, but, and also kind of is an asset for the community to see how my dad was wrongfully imprisoned and also be a speaker for those who were also wrongfully imprisoned, and also for my grandmother so she can speak about the challenges of being both an advocate and a support system from outside of the prison system. So I think it would just completely lift a veil about the truth of not only the racist history of Oregon, but also just the structural racism, the inequalities in the prison industrial complex in the criminal justice system. Because obviously, you know, people are waking up now more, but I think it would be super integral, especially to have that exoneration in Oregon.
Cara: What can community members do to support?
Imani: Yeah, I’ve been thinking about this a lot. And I think what me and my grandmother have discussed is that we really need the community members to email the state of Oregon and the representatives, keep talking about the case, keep the interest high, keep sharing on social media outlets. I think what we really need is just that constant pressure from the supporters about the powers that be in Oregon and be able to reach people who have the power, authority, and the means to overturn his conviction. I feel like that’s the most important thing because we have been raising money for legal fees and stuff, but what we really need now is just constant pressure to the representatives and the state of Oregon and telling them that we need to exonerate my father. I think we just really need people to come together or for people who have a lot of power and authority to help us out and continuously fight until my father is exonerated.
Cara: And the last question, there are said to be four levels of racism. The individual side, which includes an internalized racism and interpersonal racism, systematic side, which includes institutional racism and structural racism. while all these areas of racism are important to understand, unpack, and work on. In your view, what needs to change systematically now?
Imani: I think all those, yeah, I think all those different types of racisms overlap. But I think what’s the most important right now, what needs to change is the systematic racism, especially like the deep seated insidious enabling culture of the legal community. Like there are so many, you know, groups, organizations, agencies and institutions that refuse to take correction action when they have the means and opportunities and legal opportunities to do so. So like for example, judges, like the Oregon State Bar Associates have backed away from their responsibility to do what was within each of their realm of power when it came to my dad’s case. I think they need to admit to the institutional and the structural racism in his case. And I think that if you have the power to help a family, that you should be able to use that, you know? And I think that’s the most important thing that needs to change right now. So it doesn’t continue to keep happening again, because more and more do we see, you know, Black Americans are, you know, wrongfully imprisoned more, are sentenced longer, are misidentified, it continues to happen. And even the organizations that we do have usually only exonerate based on DNA. So that completely throws out all the other cases where DNA, they cannot use DNA. They have, you know, you can’t use DNA to prove racial bias and, you know. false identification and things like that. So what really just needs to change is the systems and the history of racism in the systems.
Cara: We are so happy to have made this connection with you, Amani. Thank you for sharing your story with us. Those of you listening, we hope you can make it out to the Art House on November 30th at six to 7.30 for the community conversation for To Kill a Mockingbird. This conversation will dive deeper into racial disparities in the criminal justice system and what we can do on an individual and systemic level to disrupt racism.
This is a free event and open to the public. Broadway’s To Kill a Mockingbird opens December 1st and runs through the 3rd at the Hult Center. Thank you for taking the time to listen.