It’s tragic that Kenneth Nixon’s false conviction cost him 16 years of freedom, but it’s fair to wonder, perhaps selfishly, what it cost everyone else.
Since his 2021 release from prison, Kenneth has proven to be a skilled problem solver and coalition builder. As president of the Organization of the Exonerees, he has worked with both government and private businesses to remove barriers formerly incarcerated people face when they come home. He worked with the state of Michigan to help people obtain state-issued IDs, for example, and with top leadership at Huntington Bank to help them gain access to bank accounts.
Those are the skills he will put to work at Safe & Just Michigan as our new director of director of outreach and community partnerships. In this leadership role, he will be forming networks between criminal justice reform advocates, legislators, community organizations and businesses — all with the goal of creating a better justice system for the state of Michigan. He will also help develop and advance SJM’s strategic plan and diversity, equity and inclusion goals.
“I couldn’t even understand how any of this was even a thing,” Kenneth said. “In 2021, how the hell are we still arguing about birth certificates and social security cards, state IDs, when I can literally look up anything from my phone?”
While Kenneth’s influence on the criminal justice system in recent years is clear, his introduction to the field was not by choice.
In 2004, he was a 19-year-old from Detroit preparing for college and raising a one-year-old son. The mother of Kenneth’s son had an affair with a close friend of his, but Kenneth and the man agreed to stay away from each other — which seemingly defused the tense situation.
Shortly later, Kenneth was woken up in the middle of the night by police officers raiding his house. Kenneth was arrested, but he had no idea what for.
Police told Kenneth he was being arrested because the home of the man he’d been feuding with previously had been set on fire. Two children that were inside had died. They told Kenneth a Molotov cocktail was used to light the fire, but Kenneth did not even know what a Molotov cocktail was, or why he was being blamed for the tragedy.
“I think I was too emotionally immature to really understand what they were saying,” he said. “It just didn’t make sense.”
Despite his innocence, Kenneth felt like a failure. He knew that the story would reflect poorly on the people he loved. Worse, Kenneth was not granted bond, meaning the last time he was free was before he knew the crime had happened. He never got to tell most of his loved ones his side of the story before it was picked up by news stations.
“I knew this reflects on everybody,” he said. “Somebody goes to jail or prison, it’s not just a singular incident. Everybody around you receives a blowback.”
Kenneth would later find out that a 13-year-old claimed to have seen him outside the house. As the legal process progressed, prosecutors used an unreliable jailhouse informant and buried evidence that showed Kenneth’s innocence. Less than 6 months after the incident, he was given two life sentences in prison.
Kenneth was barely an adult and had never committed an infraction more serious than a traffic ticket. Yet, he was being sentenced to die in prison. Despite the grim situation, he maintained his innocence.
“In my mind, I was not dying in prison,” Kenneth said. “That was just not an option for me.”
Kenneth learned as much as he could about criminal justice, hoping he would be able to find something that would apply to his case. He watched television shows like “Dateline” and “48 Hours.” He took a couple classes through the prison — though because he was serving a life sentence, he could only take classes his family could pay for. He read books, newspapers and magazines, searching for the latest advances in crime solving technology or examples of prosecutorial misconduct.
Through it all, Kenneth was learning how to become a powerful advocate. He considers himself lucky in some sense because the people around him had resources that many others in prison do not have access to. Kenneth learned how to convey his needs and challenges to people who do not understand what life in prison is like.
“I had to be able to verbally explain what I needed them to do,” he said. “I knew I couldn’t do that being angry or caught in my feelings or emotions surrounding the circumstances.”
As time passed more information came out. It was revealed that the jailhouse informant made up the story about Kenneth to get a better deal for his own case. Journalism students from Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., obtained documents related to Kenneth’s case that showed police misconduct. The Cooley Law School Innocence Project and Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office Conviction Integrity Unit started looking at Kenneth’s case.
It was revealed that police knew early on that they had likely arrested the wrong person. Still, they only pushed evidence that would lead to a guilty verdict. Many of the police involved in Kenneth’s case had already retired, but some of those who hadn’t were fired. It was shown these officers had used similar tactics to manufacture guilty verdicts for others as well.
In February 2021, it was ruled Kenneth did not receive a fair trial and he was released into a whole new world, with new challenges.
“The advancements in technology were mind-blowing,” he said. “When I left, we were still using flip phones. Text messaging was just starting to get hot. Emails to your phone were pretty much unheard of.”
Kenneth had people around him that helped him with the transition, but he knew of other formerly incarcerated people that did not have that help.
“I think my support system is an outlier, compared to some of the other people,” he said. “If [your family] can’t help themselves, how are they going to help you? Now, you’re just an extra mouth to feed. An extra pair of socks.”
The lack of support may be especially problematic for people with mental health issues that are going through re-entry. The rapid shift in lifestyle and mountain of challenges that come with re-entry can be amplified by long neglected mental health concerns.
“Prison exasperates mental health,” Kenneth said. “If you went in with a problem, you’re for sure coming out with a bigger problem.”
As Kenneth worked to become independent, he saw all the flaws in the system. Through public and private partnerships, Kenneth has worked over the last two years to eliminate some of these problems through his work with the Organization of Exonerees.
Kenneth is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in political science at Wayne State University with hopes to eventually attend law school. But he wants to make sure that other exonerees have the same opportunities that he does.
Kenneth worked with Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy, Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office Conviction Integrity Director Valerie Newman and a large donor to secure a grant that will pay for exonerees to attend Wayne State.
“As long as you’re exonerated, you can attend Wayne State University under that grant money,” he said. “So, you can leave school with no debt.”
Now, Kenneth will bring his problem-solving skills to Safe & Just Michigan in his role as Director of Outreach and Community Partnerships. His well-developed leadership and organizational leadership skills will support the forming of partnerships with businesses and legislators to spread knowledge about what policy or procedural changes could be made to help people who have been incarcerated.
“I’m a problem solver, I don’t do a lot of complaining,” he said. “My mission is to really just fix it.”
~ Lucas Day
SJM Social Work Intern