Absolved finally of taking a life, Charles Jackson now has his sights set on saving one.
Charles received the life-changing news at the end of last week that prosecutors in Cuyahoga County had finally decided to dismiss the charges against him for a 1991 double-shooting that left a man dead – a crime for which he had already wrongfully served 27 years in prison.
Last November, a judge in Cleveland overturned his conviction, giving him back his freedom but with the prospect looming that the state could decide to try him again.
The decision to dismiss the charges means that a retrial scheduled to convene this month isn’t going to happen, and that Charles officially joins the ranks of 27 other exonerees freed through the work of the Ohio Innocence Project, based in the University of Cincinnati College of Law.
(He was officially added to the National Registry of Exonerations on Wednesday. You can read his profile with full details of his case at http://www.law.umich.edu/special/exoneration/pages/casedetail.aspx?caseid=5605)
It also means he can travel to Jacksonville, Fla., where his nephew, Houston Foster, is now residing.
Houston Foster is suffering with advanced kidney disease, to the point he can no longer work nor travel. After testing this spring following his release, Charles turned out to be a match for donating the kidney that Houston needs.
Now he’s making plans for an extended trip to Florida for the transplant of one of his kidneys to Houston.
“It dawned on me that I need to do this now,” Charles says. “What if they had somehow found a way to send me back to prison? You could have been looking at me in prison with two kidneys and my nephew having passed away. That would be really messed up.”
In a sense, both Charles and Houston have been imprisoned. Charles was physically locked up in Ohio, while Houston has been tied to the frequent need for dialysis. “When I was locked up, I’d call him early on Tuesdays and Thursdays and we would have long talks. He was sitting in a chair doing nothing anyway, so we would talk.”
(A GoFundMe page has been set up to help with the expenses for Houston Foster’s kidney transplant. To see it and learn more about Houston, go to https://bit.ly/2lG6GrO )
The two men are only a few years apart in age, and spent a lot of time together during the years before Charles’s wrongful conviction. Houston was still able to travel last winter and came up to reunite with his uncle following Charles’s release.
That was one of just many personal relationships that all exonerees face the challenge of re-establishing once they are released. In Charles’s case, those circumstances become extraordinarily complicated last week, just as the news was arriving that his charges had been dismissed.
What ordinarily would have been a moment of great relief and joy was clouded by a confluence of other emotions.
On the afternoon he got the call, he was preparing to go to a wedding for a fellow graduate of Edwins Leadership & Restaurant Institute, a six-month culinary program that Charles completed in June. With him was his daughter Ciara Whitmore-Jackson, who was born three months after Charles was sent to prison. It was her birthday – the first her dad would be able to spend with her as a free man – but because of the wedding, they were going to put off celebrating for a day.
Added on top of all that was the planning of a funeral for Charles’s oldest brother, who had passed away the previous week. And now the reality that being a kidney donor was in his immediate future had suddenly become tangible.
“There was a lot going on,” says Charles, in an understatement that reflects his dry sense of humor. “But everything is working out.”
Later this fall, he hopes to return to Cleveland and use his culinary skills to open his own food truck. The school he attended, Edwins, specializes in fine French dining, and Charles jokes that he plans to serve French food – in the form of French fries, a food that has been a particular favorite of his since he was a child.
For now, Charles is grateful to all those who supported him and helped him regain his freedom, and is looking forward to helping his nephew and then trying to move forward to a new phase of his life at age 55.
“I am ecstatic for Charles,” says OIP staff attorney Mallorie Thomas, who joined with OIP staff attorney Donald Caster in representing Jackson. “Charles has always maintained his innocence and now that was proven to be true. I feel so lucky that I had the opportunity to work with and get to know Charles. I know he will do amazing things with his freedom.”