“We Are Better, Not Bitter”
Aaron Salter’s story is not unlike many youth who grew up in the city of Detroit. Struggling to make ends meet while raising two boys on a social worker’s salary, Aaron’s mom worked long hours leaving Aaron to his own devices. By the time he was 12 or 13 years old, he had been arrested for truancy, violating curfew and regularly hung out with the “wrong crowd.”
High school began for Aaron at the Clarinda Academy in Clarinda, Iowa. This juvenile detention center was his home for eleven months – his punishment for felonious assault. While there, Aaron straightened up. He played football and basketball and maintained a 3.5 GPA. He had potential as an athlete and as a promising student.
When he returned home, his mom was determined to find the best high school option for her son, eventually connecting with coach Leroy Bogard at Kettering in Detroit. Coach Bogard was inspired to help Aaron stay on the right track and told his mom that he’d make it his personal goal to see that Aaron graduates high school and would go to college.
On February 6, 2001 Aaron signed on to play football at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. This was a turning point for Aaron – or so he thought. While Coach Bogard got Aaron this far, no one discussed tuition, scholarship, financial aid or loans with Aaron and his mom. The deal with UAPB was for partial tuition and without financial aid there was no money to pay the balance. So, after one semester, Aaron returned to Detroit. With no money, no skills, and little hope, he began to look for work. He tried his hand as a busboy at iHop and filled in with seasonal construction jobs. However, it just wasn’t enough. So, Aaron reached out to his cousin who was a drug dealer, looking to make a quick buck and return to university. (read more)
Looking to make a quick buck, Aaron reached out to his cousin who was a drug dealer. In the meantime, the family home went into foreclosure, they moved in with his step-father’s mother and even though Aaron’s intention was to return to university, life seemed to spiral downward.
Two years after the celebratory football signing, Aaron was convicted of 1st degree murder which carried a life sentence and two counts of 2nd degree murder, each carrying a 20-40-year sentence. Aaron knew he was innocent. However, the conviction painted him as a monster. Prison guards treated him like an evil monster; he couldn’t access academic programming or any trade related skill building. Programming went to offenders with the earliest release dates. Lifers were pushed to the back of the line every time a new offender came in with an earlier release date.
Surviving prison was a daily challenge that Aaron managed by “reading a lot, studying the law, staying close to his mother and learning the importance of meditation.” He took a deep look at his own character and used the practice of meditation and deep thinking to make changes in his outlook and ways of approaching the world.
He knew he would “get out” but as the days, months and years rolled by, it was hard to keep the faith. In 2009, a key witness recanted their statement accusing Aaron of murder and a judge appointed Jonathan Epstein, from the federal defender’s unit to work on Aaron’s case. Five years later, in 2014, Aaron volunteered to take a polygraph to prove his credibility. It wasn’t until 2018, with the formation of the Wayne County Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU), that Aaron had the chance to have his case looked at again. In April 2018, his lawyer submitted his case for review. He was quickly found to be innocent and was exonerated of all charges! Eventually, the stars aligned, he had the right legal team in his court and the day finally came for his release. On that day, the entire yard came to say good-bye to Aaron. His fight for freedom was an inspiration to everyone. Coincidentally, Aaron’s release date, August 15, 2018, was his 36th birthday and his freedom was the best gift he could have received.
Over the years, Aaron did a lot of soul searching and found within himself a driving desire to help others. While incarcerated, he studied various religions including Buddhism which is highly focused on caring and doing for others. This resonated with him and he found that helping others is therapeutic.
When Aaron got out he knew that he needed to do something for others like him to help exonerees learn skills and have a safety net so they could find independence. Innocence Maintained is about teaching people the skills and know-how to stand on their own two feet to make a life for themselves. For now, Aaron and Innocence Maintained are leading the way for those wrongly accused and imprisoned, making a difference in these lives, one person at a time.
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