Kenneth Nixon gestures after being released from prison in Ionia, Michigan. (Courtesy of WMU-Cooley Law School)
Kenneth Nixon gestures after being released from prison in Ionia, Michigan. (Courtesy of WMU-Cooley Law School)

On February 18, Kenneth Nixon walked out of a Michigan state prison and into his mother’s arms for the first time in more than 15 years.

The reunion was bittersweet: Sentenced to life without parole at age 19, Nixon spent his twenties fighting to overturn a double-murder conviction for a crime he says he did not commit.

In 2005, he was found guilty of firebombing a house, resulting in the deaths of a 10-year-old boy and 1-year-old girl.

Nixon secured his freedom with the help of the Western Michigan University Cooley Innocence Project, the Wayne County Conviction Integrity Unit — and a group of students studying investigative reporting at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.

The students at Medill began looking into his case in 2018 as part of an investigative reporting class taught by senior associate dean Tim Franklin, assistant professor Desiree Hanford and adjunct instructor George Papajohn.

Their research and reporting uncovered new evidence and inconsistencies in the original case.

Along with memos, including one in which a prosecutor described the case as having “serious problems,” the Medill students looked into conflicting accounts from the brother of the victims and testimony of a jailhouse informant, and they interviewed three witnesses who provided alibis that accounted for Nixon’s location at the time of the fire.

After months of reporting, the students published their work in the Detroit Free Press in October 2018.

Nixon is the fifth person to be exonerated with the help of the WMU-Cooley Innocence Project, which looked at DNA test results and other new evidence to support his case.  

VOA contacted the Wayne County Conviction Integrity Unit on Friday to ask whether it will reopen the investigation into the deadly fire. No one immediately responded to the inquiry.

Pursuit of truth

When his class began looking into Nixon’s case, Franklin said, he “wasn’t hoping for or expecting a dismissal.” Instead, the journalism professor said he told his students “our only fidelity was to the truth, and that we’d follow it wherever it took us.”

“Our mission was not to be advocates, but to be investigators,” Franklin told VOA via email.

The 10-week course provided a hands-on, real-world journalistic experience for the students.

Kenneth Nixon hugs his mother after being released from prison with the help of the WMU-Cooley Innocence Project and students at the Medill School of Journalism. (Courtesy of WMU-Cooley Law School)

Franklin said his class “read hundreds of pages of court documents and police reports, obtained internal records and interviewed witnesses, experts and law enforcement authorities,” and also interviewed Nixon and his relatives.

"I’m sure many of the students woke up in the morning and went to bed at night thinking about this case,” Franklin said. “They became emotionally invested in getting to the truth.”

One student, Ashley Graham, described the many road trips her class took to Michigan to interview Nixon’s friends and family, and the “long nights” spent “reading or writing drafts.”

“It's still sinking in for me,” Graham said of Nixon’s release. “Part of me didn't want to believe it until I heard the judge say it.”

The result in Nixon’s case from their reporting felt surreal, Graham said, telling VOA, “It makes my stomach kind of like drop a little bit in a good way.”

“The impact is clear,” she said, adding that Nixon’s lawyers “have told him that they paid more attention once they read our story.”

Impact of local journalism

The case shows the impact that local investigative journalism can have on communities, said Kim Kleman, senior vice president of Report for America, an organization dedicated to strengthening communities and democracy through local journalism.

“Kenneth Nixon wouldn't have been freed from prison if it weren't for these reporters,” Kleman said. “Every community, we believe, needs robust, investigative and accountable local journalism.”

When it comes to powerful structures such as the criminal justice system, high-quality reporting provides an important level of accountability. “When it's apparent that somebody's watching,” Kleman said, “[it] makes for better government all around.”

For Nixon, the impact of that journalism meant his charges were dismissed and he was able to reunite with his family.

“Local journalism has perhaps never been more important than in these times,” journalism professor Franklin told VOA. “And, it can have real-world impact. It certainly did in this case.”