Detroit man freed from prison transforms house for ‘remarkable’ project
Aaron Salter of Innocence Maintained stands in the backyard of a house he has renovated in Detroit Thursday Dec. 5, 2019
to help exonerated prisoners like James Clay start a new life after prison. (Photo: Mandi Wright, Detroit Free Press)
Nobody dreams of being a member of the group — the one for people who were convicted of crimes they didn’t commit.
But they are, nonetheless, and Aaron Salter, who was initiated in 2003, wants to help some of them out.
He bought a house in Detroit earlier this year, then spent months renovating it.
Now, Salter is giving exonerees a place to live — and landing them jobs — to help with the transition back into society.
“I don’t believe in waiting on people to help us,” Salter said. “That’s why I put my own money in this house.”
He spent 14 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit, won his freedom last year and knows the difficulties that follow being released.
Salter, 37, struggled to find permanent housing. He slept on couches and stayed in a motel with family before the state compensated him for being wrongfully imprisoned.
The money helped secure a place to live and Salter decided to use some of it to make life easier for others. He spent $50,000 for a boarded-up house near Woodward Avenue and McNichols Road then poured another $50,000 into it, transforming the dilapidated property into a home.
The three-bedroom, two-story house with a large front porch, basement and backyard is almost finished. It has new vinyl plank floors, fresh paint, an updated heating and cooling system, a renovated kitchen and bathroom, new furniture and furnishings and its first tenant.
James Chad-Lewis Clay, who was exonerated in a decades-old rape case this year, settled into his second-floor bedroom earlier this month.
“I’m very blessed,” he said.
Clay, 39, made his new bed using sheets, blankets and pillows provided by the Here to Help Foundation. The organization also supplied the house with dressers, a dining room table, couch, refrigerator, washer and dryer and other household items to help Clay and his future roommates move forward on their own.
“We’re not a handout,” founder Bob Schwartz said. “We’re a hand up.”
Here to Help serves Wayne and Oakland counties and has operated for more than a decade. It has assisted thousands of people over the years, including several men recently exonerated and trying to restart their lives.
After all that’s been taken from them, Schwartz said many of the exonerees he works with aren’t bitter and want to help others.
“I think it’s remarkable,” he said of Salter’s efforts with the house.
New tenants are expected join Clay next year.
Clay’s case garnered national attention when he was released from prison in July following a Free Press investigation. In 2017, a jury convicted him of a raping a teen in a Detroit alley in 1997. Clay always maintained he didn’t commit the crime and the case against him was dismissed in August.
Recently, Clay started working a security job and said new living arrangement eased previous concerns about shelter. He no longer has to stay with family and friends or worry about where he’ll eat next.
“It feels like I got peace, finally,” Clay said.
A chance encounter led to a job offer for all the tenants in the home.
Rosemarie Forrest–Cunningham, owner of The Jamaican Pot restaurant with her husband, Bruce Cunningham, said one of her workers didn’t show up to deliver Salter’s catering last month, so she dropped it off.
She credits God for connecting her with him.
Salter told her about the house and what he was doing with it, and she wanted to team up with him to help others get ahead and feel good about themselves.
Forrest–Cunningham plans to open another location early next year on Grand Boulevard in Detroit and said she’ll provide jobs to those living in the house, which will help them earn money to pay bills like rent.
“I decided that is something I would love to do to get them back on their feet,” she said.
Salter will mentor the men who work for her and live in his house. His office is also in the home.
While still a small group, the number of people freed from prison in metro Detroit because of issues with their criminal cases has grown in recent years.
The Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office Conviction Integrity Unit, which formed two years ago and investigates claims of innocence, has been instrumental in 13 people being released.
Maria Miller, the office’s spokeswoman, said prosecutors determined defendants were innocent in six of the cases and another seven cases were significantly flawed. Prosecutors didn’t retry those cases for various reasons and the charges were ultimately tossed.
Some cases are dismissed in other ways. The Wayne County Sexual Assault Kit Task Force re-examined Clay’s case after being contacted by the Free Press about an identity issue that led to Clay’s conviction. After investigating, prosecutors sought Clay’s release from prison. He was serving a 25- to 50-year prison sentence.
Salter’s convictions were tossed in 2018. The murder case against him was based on mistaken identification by the main witness and no other evidence supported his 2003 conviction, prosecutors said. Salter had been sentenced to life in prison without parole.
“The system failed him,” Prosecutor Kym Worthy said in a statement when charges were dropped. “Nothing I can say will bring back the years of his life spent in prison.”
Salter said some people think when an exoneree is released from prison, it’s the end of the fight but it’s not. He uses his own experiences to figure out what the men need when they get out.
Helping others helps him.
“It’s therapeutic for me to help other people,” Salter said. “That’s part of my own healing.”
Contact Elisha Anderson: firstname.lastname@example.org or 313-222-5144