When Imani Wolery was younger, friends would occasionally ask her to point out her father in the audience at volleyball games and school drama performances, within the endless sea of parents smiling and clutching video cameras.
Wolery would scan the crowd of the Wilsonville Elementary School auditorium. She might see her mom, or her little brother sitting on her Grammie’s lap. But her Dad was always absent.
“He couldn’t make it,” she’d reply. “He lives in Salem.”
Her excuse was true. Since 2010, Wolery’s father, Jerrin Hickman, has been imprisoned in the Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem, serving a life sentence for murder.
As the years have passed since Hickman’s arrest, so have his children’s birthday parties, school plays and graduations. “My dad is always in the back of my mind,” Wolery says.
Sometimes the proximity feels like a slap in the face — Wolery’s bedroom at the University of Oregon in Eugene, adorned with her favorite books, poetry clippings and artwork, is less than an hour’s drive down I-5 from her father’s prison cell. On some days the idea is comforting. On others it serves as a stark reminder of what they both are missing.
More than 2.7 million children in the U.S. have an incarcerated parent, or one in 28. When looking specifically at Black children, the number rises to a staggering one in nine.
Wolery, now 22 and graduating, has made it her life’s mission to ensure no family experiences the same pain. She plans to attend law school next year, specializing in wrongful conviction and working to free those abandoned by the legal system. Although it will be some time before she receives her law degree, Wolery’s immediate goal is clear: to exonerate her father.
“I know he is innocent,” she says.
If you ask the prosecutors in Hickman’s case, they’ll tell you the story is cut and dry.
Their version goes like this: In December 2007, Hickman was an established member of the Rolling 60s gang in Portland, according to court documents. While celebrating New Year’s Eve at a house party in a northeast neighborhood of the city, Hickman began arguing with 25-year-old Christopher Monette. Then — in an act of bravado, or to beat the odds stacked against his 5’6” frame — prosecutors say Hickman silenced the conversation with four bullets to Monette’s chest.
Multiple witnesses, and Hickman himself, agree that he did not know the victim prior to the New Year’s Eve Party. Judge Michael Marcus, who sentenced Hickman to life in prison, later mused on why he might have killed a stranger.
“Principles are very serious to [gang members] because they mean nothing outside their silo,” Marcus said in a 2011 interview for the Oregon Historical Society. “They have no source of self-respect, of dignity, of status in their community except within the gang silo.”
Marcus had previously presided over a case involving Hickman, in which Hickman faced charges of assault in an attack against two off-duty police officers in Portland in 2001. Hickman was acquitted by a jury.
Discussing the 2008 New Year’s shooting, Marcus explained why some murders don’t seem to have a motive. “They’re willing to shoot somebody outside the silo, feel no remorse, and fire a gun off into the air just in celebration of a victory, which is, from the outside, insane,” he said. “But from the inside it makes perfect sense.”
Hickman and his family tell the story differently.
They say Hickman is a peaceful family man — one with plenty of self-respect and dignity without needing to be a part of a gang. After being falsely accused, they say, he fell victim to a racist justice system thirsty to make a conviction. His own family members turned against him — some bitter from years-old feuds regarding inheritance money, according to Hickman’s mother, and several facing criminal charges of their own.
Hickman says he has never been a part of a gang, although there is evidence that multiple men involved in the case were associates of The Rolling 60s.
Perhaps most disturbing, one of the state’s key eye-witnesses to the shooting, a 19-year old white woman identified as “D,” admitted in a pre-trial interview that “all Black men look the same” to her.
It is a story muddled by legal setbacks, family divides and widely conflicting versions of events. Even the Oregon Innocence Project, after filing a brief on Hickman’s behalf, has cautioned the family there is too much “red tape” surrounding the case. Still, more than a decade since the New Year’s Eve party that shifted the course of their lives, Hickman’s mother and daughter continue to fight for his freedom.
Terri Miller, Mom to Hickman and Grammie to Wolery, has a calming presence. The 68-year-old former Army veteran speaks deliberately and with purpose, even when the subject matter is devastating.
“This is my life now,” she says. Miller estimates that over the past 10 years she has spent upward of $100,000 in legal fees in an attempt to exonerate her son. Though the cost has been staggering, she sees no other option.
“I won’t submit to it,” Miller says. “Jerrin was stolen from me.”
As she speaks, Miller pushes the frames of her reading glasses up the bridge of her nose. She flips through a box containing a mountain of paperwork pertaining to her son’s case.
“You know, I always told my children never to go out on New Year’s,” she says, pulling out a stack of trial notes. “There’s a curse in my family.”
In the 1930s, Miller’s great aunt was shot and killed while wearing a friend’s fur coat on New Year’s Eve, a case of misidentification. “Misidentification” is a word she repeats often — it was even the title of a document provided to prosecutors during one of her son’s many trials: “Oregon’s Reliable Misidentification of Jerrin L. Hickman.”
The cardboard box stuffed with papers is nearly full: Hickman’s case has gone through nearly every loop in the Oregon legal system. In 2013, the Oregon Court of Appeals overturned Hickman’s conviction on the basis of unreliable testimony, and he was granted a new trial. The case was pushed forward to the Oregon Supreme Court, where the appeals decision was tossed, and Hickman re-sentenced. In the spring of 2021, Hickman’s petition for post-conviction relief was denied for a fourth time.
Miller sighs. If only her son had heeded her advice.
On the evening of New Year’s Eve 2007, Jerrin Hickman had reason to celebrate: He and his fiancée, Cally Wolery, had just discovered she was pregnant with a baby boy. The couple already shared a daughter, 9-year-old Imani Wolery, who was born from Cally’s previous relationship, though Hickman had been involved in her life since a toddler, and treated her as his own.
“I remember being so excited that I was going to have a little brother,” Imani Wolery says.
The couple shared a home in suburban Wilsonville, where Cally Wolery worked as a nurse. Hickman worked as a licensed massage therapist at Massage Envy, hoping to supplement a career in music.
“It was a happy time,” Miller recalls. “Jerrin was working on his rap, but I told him he needed something stable to help support the family while that happened, so he got his massage license, and he was really enjoying it.”
Once the new baby arrived, the couple decided they would get married and Hickman would officially adopt Imani. The paperwork would finally prove what they already knew: They were a family.
According to Miller, that night, Hickman and Cally Wolery baked cookies and brought them to the neighbors surrounding their home to celebrate. Then Hickman met a friend out for a drink at a bar. The two then decided to attend a party in northeast Portland. Hickman offered to drive.
This is where the events of Dec. 31, 2007, begin to get murky. The party was crowded, with several dozen Black men gathered on the front lawn.
Two white women from West Linn, aged 18 and 19, pulled up to the house and remained in the backseat of the car. One of the women told prosecutors she felt “out of her element” in the east side of Portland.
An argument broke out on the front lawn. The teenagers sat behind a rain-drizzled window as someone fired a gun — once, then a pause, and three more shots. Chaos ensued as the bullets rang out. Men fled, some jumping into cars and speeding away, others sprinting down the street.
Hickman fled, too. This may have been his first mistake. Prosecutors would infer guilt in the fact that he left the scene, despite nearly everyone else doing the same.
The car with the two women attempted to pull away from the home. Two men jumped into the car, while a third man, who the women believed to be the shooter, attempted to enter but was shoved out.
Responding to radio calls of a “large fight in progress,” Portland police officers arrived at the scene, according to a police affidavit. East Precinct Officer Tim Mast noticed two Black males walking east on NE Thompson Street — Hickman and Dontae Porter — and yelled at them to stop. Porter complied, while Hickman continued walking.
This detail is important to note. While the two young women would later identify Hickman as the shooter, they also said that the shooter had run up and attempted to enter their car. However, as the officer noted in his police report, Hickman was seen walking away from the party at a large distance from where the girls’ car was parked.
“He can’t be in two places at once,” Hickman’s lawyer later argued.
Officer Mast barely had a moment to question Porter, before being approached by a frantic woman in her early 20s.
“Someone’s been shot,” yelled the woman, according to Mast’s notes. It was only then that officers noticed the victim’s limp body bleeding out onto the driveway.
As the sun rose on the first morning of 2008, Hickman lay shivering and severely hypothermic on the embankment of a nearby golf course, according to court documents. Frozen dew drops clung to his bare arms.
He’d left the party, breaking into a sprint, then falling over a wall into an embankment, rolling down a large, grassy hill and breaking his leg.
Two golfers found Hickman in the early hours of the morning. According to an arrest warrant, Hickman was reluctant for emergency personnel to be called, and instead explained that his phone died and he needed to contact his fiancée, a registered nurse.
Miles away in Wilsonville, Cally Wolery paced back and forth. Her fiancé hadn’t returned home the night before. It wasn’t like him.
Although Hickman was a social man — often taking hours to reach a destination because he’d stop at several friends’ places along the way for a drink and conversation, and often arriving home late — it was strange that he hadn’t come home at all.
The first Hickman’s mother heard of the New Year’s Eve party was a phone call from Cally Wolery.
“I’m on my way to the hospital,” Cally told her mother-in-law. “Jerrin has a broken leg.”
Miller got on the next flight from Sacramento. When she arrived in Portland to help her son recover from surgery, his retelling of the night’s events horrified her.
“I got there, I’m walking up, and then there’s fighting and shots,” Miller recalls Hickman exclaiming in his usual animated style, waving his hands around. “I ran and I guess I lost my shoes, they were too big.”
He went on to explain who else was at the party: several young men that Miller was aware of as “troublemakers,” including two cousins and an uncle. Miller says she warned Hickman several times about getting involved with this crowd. She thought they resented him for his successful lifestyle.
Several years before, Miller’s father — grandfather to Hickman and his cousins at the party — died, leaving behind a large sum of inheritance money. The resulting in-fighting had left the Miller family fractured.
In the homicide report, one of Hickman’s cousins is questioned about the New Year’s killing, as well as the Miller family dynamics. “Junior [Miller] lamented that members of his own family do not get along,” Det. Rico Beniga writes.
Beniga asked Junior Miller if there were conflicts of loyalty at play, given his friendship with the victim and relationship to Hickman. Junior Miller listened before remarking, “There is no loyalty in my family.”
Hickman would not realize the full impact of that statement until trial.
In the weeks following the party, life seemed to return to mostly normal. Hickman got used to navigating around on crutches, and his mother returned home to Sacramento. Though he’d been left injured, with all things accounted for, it seemed that the New Year’s curse had left Hickman lucky this time. He was alive.
In July the baby was born, a healthy boy. Hickman and Cally Wolery visited Sacramento several times, spending their days on the front porch cooing over their newborn, Miller and Imani recall. Imani played in the backyard with her little cousins, while Miller cooked meals and admired the family her son had created.
Little did Hickman know that Portland police were building a case against him. Dontae Porter had told officers that Hickman was the shooter, and they began to collect evidence. A report by Beniga details the police observing the Hickman family.
At 8:12 am on July 2, 2008, Beniga watched from inside a car as Hickman rolled garbage and recycling cans from the garage to the curb in his Wilsonville home, according to the detective’s notes. Beniga followed the garbage truck back to the waste management facility, then dug out two empty bottles of Corona and SmartWater from the bin.
Examination concluded that DNA from the bottles matched that of DNA found on a black ski mask at the crime scene: the one that Dontae Porter claimed Hickman had pulled over his face before committing the shooting.
Detectives were forced to collect DNA evidence from Hickman’s home because he had never been convicted of a felony, meaning he had no previous samples in the system.
Porter, on the other hand, was no stranger to the Portland police. His prior convictions, as listed in the police affidavit, included: Assault in the first degree with a firearm in 1994, two counts of felon in possession of a firearm in 1997 and 2006, two counts of possession of a controlled substance in 1997 and 2000, riot and assault in the third degree in 2001, theft in the third degree in 2004, and finally, identity theft in 2006.
At the time of the shooting, Porter was facing a minimum of 15 years in prison for his most recent charge, and had only been released from custody on a deal to cooperate in the New Year’s case. His DNA was also present on the ski mask.
Nearly two years passed after the murder.
In that time, the prosecution scrambled to find witnesses to the shooting, as many party-goers either fled Oregon or refused to cooperate with police.
Junior Miller wrote in a later affidavit, “The reason I didn’t want to talk to anybody about what I saw after that night was because I do not want to be involved in it. I was worried the police would try to pin somthin’ on me.”
Joaquin Miller, another cousin who attended the party, also avoided trial. “Prior to and during Jerrin Hickman’s trial, I avoided contact with police and defense investigators,” he wrote in an affidavit. “I still had active warrants.”
When the trial came around, the state knew they could bank on a few testimonies. First there was Porter, who had a prior history and was himself considered a suspect before pointing the finger at Hickman. DNA present on the ski mask matched Hickman, but it also matched Porter and potentially other men at the party.
Years after the trial, a man named Tyrone Miller — no relation to Hickman — came forward with testimony that seems to imply Porter was the killer. Tyrone says he was eating bar food at the Parrot Bar on Lombard Street a few months after the shooting, when he overheard Porter drunkenly bragging about getting away with a murder on New Year’s.
“He said it was a close call. He was talking as if he did it — like he got away with something,” Tyrone Miller wrote in an affidavit. “I really did not want to be involved, and I thought Jerrin would be found not guilty, so I never came forward.”
The state responded to this new evidence: Tyrone Miller “bases his opinion, apparently, on the fact that ‘…Porter in so many words said he had killed…’ Monette. This is, simply put, not evidence at all.”
Then there was Brandon Miller, Hickman’s uncle, who also came forward to blame Hickman.
At the time of the investigation, Brandon Miller was facing up to 290 months in prison for a litany of charges, including severely beating his girlfriend, it was revealed during the 2021 post-conviction relief trial. Conflicting testimonies disagree whether he was even outside at the time of the shooting and witnessed it at all. Brandon Miller agreed to testify in exchange for leniency towards his own charges.
Then, there were the state’s golden witnesses: the two white women from West Linn, listed as “D” and “N” in trial documents, who had remained in the car and apparently had a front-row viewing of the murder. These women had no prior record, no personal bias against Hickman, and no reason to cover for anyone else at the party. It was almost perfect.
There were only a few weak spots. On the night of the shooting, N told police that she “couldn’t see much” and only described the shooter as having a “stocky build” and wearing a “do-rag.” In a pre-trial interview, D, who said she was speaking to her friend while the shooting occured, instead described the murderer as having a “big afro.” The next day, she changed the description to “twisties” with “close black hair.” According to the investigator, D claimed “all Black men look the same” to her, though she later denied this statement.
Moreover, in the two years since the murder, police never conducted a single line-up with the women, nor presented them with any photos of Hickman.
Almost two years to the day since the party, D appeared in court.
According to court documents, prosecutor Rod Underhill had devised a secret signal in which D would only be asked to identify the shooter if she believed she saw him in the room. Of course, Hickman was the only suspect on trial, and therefore the only one she could reasonably identify.
Only a few minutes into direct examination, a power failure occured in the courtroom. As the lights flickered off, a recess was called and members of the trial spilled out into the hallway. It was then that D caught a glimpse of Hickman.
“Oh my god,” she screamed, hyperventilating. “Oh my god, that’s him, that’s him!”
Court reconvened. Now, court documents describe Underhill asking her, “The person that you saw with a gun in the street that you’ve described, do you see anybody — well, is that person in this courtroom?”
Two years prior, on the night of the shooting, D had told officers she “didn’t see the shooting and couldn’t really describe much.” But now, she was certain. She pointed to Jerrin Hickman.
At the back of the courtroom, Terri Miller says she felt her heart drop to her stomach.
“If it was not so serious, it would have been a joke,” Miller says. “Maybe I was naive. I thought there’s no way they can convict Jerrin of something he didn’t do.”
On Dec. 31, 2009, Hickman was convicted of murder — and, within a week, sentenced to life in prison.
Underhill was later investigated in 2014 for “unethical professional conduct” during the 2009 trial, following a complaint filed by Hickman. Although the complaint was eventually dismissed, the fact that Underhill was even investigated in the first place is rare — in 2013, only 13 percent of complaints against state attorneys resulted in investigation, according to a story about the complaint in Oregonian/OregonLive.
“Rod is a master of trickery,” Miller says.
It isn’t the first time that Underhill’s courtroom tactics have raised questions. Just ask Lisa Marie Roberts, a Black woman who spent 12 years behind bars in Wilsonville’s Coffee Creek Correctional Facility for a murder she did not commit.
In 2002, Roberts’ girlfriend, a Portland sex worker, was found brutally strangled and dumped in north Portland’s Kelley Point Park. Roberts cooperated with police and maintained her innocence throughout the entire investigation.
That is, until her court-appointed attorney William Brennan told her that her only chance was to plead guilty: According to Brennan, Underhill had obtained cell-phone tower evidence that placed her near Kelley Point Park at the time of the murder.
“According to court records, Underhill had conversations with a Verizon technician, who said he could determine Roberts’ location based on the strength of her phone’s signal,” a 2014 Willamette Week story says.
The problem is, these records don’t exist. After a federal judge reopened the case in 2009, no evidence was found to back up Underhill’s assertion about the cell phone towers. Furthermore, revisited DNA analysis on the victim’s body revealed a new suspect: 36-year-old Brian Lee “Mississippi” Tuckenberry, a state inmate serving time for rape and strangulation at Deer Creek County in Madras. Tuckenberry had worked as a pimp in the same areas that Roberts’ girlfriend frequented.
In light of this new evidence, the judge ordered Underhill to either give Roberts a new trial or release her. She left prison that day.
Underhill received no formal punishment for his part in Roberts’ false imprisonment. He has since stated that he still believes Roberts is the killer and has no plans to pursue other suspects.
Underhill continued to serve as Multnomah County’s top prosecutor for six more years before his resignation in June 2020. In light of protests following the murder of George Floyd, and national conversations regarding racism and police brutality, Underhill decided to step down from his position five months early.
His resignation letter says, “We have sought to make intentional changes to our public safety system to reduce disparate impacts on our black community. It is time to do much more.”
“He’ll never admit he’s wrong,” Miller says of the letter. “And the people in Portland have been paying the price for years.”
“It’s a matter of pride,” Imani Wolery agrees. “And because Rod won’t just say he was wrong, that he messed up, my father has to suffer.”
People often say that when you lose a loved one, time stops. For Miller and Wolery, that statement both rings true and woefully false. Sometimes, it feels like the years have passed in an instant.
There was one long ago Monday afternoon when Miller picked up her grandson from kindergarten in Wilsonville. The teacher had asked the class of five-year-olds what they’d done that weekend — some had visited the pumpkin patch, others went to the park. The young boy told his classmates that he’d visited his Daddy at work.
Miller pictured their weekly trips to Oregon State Penitentiary, as her grandson asked her, “How come he can’t leave work, Grammie?”
She envisioned how a child might view the prison: a cold concrete room filled with adult men, all wearing the same uniform. Her grandson thought his father worked in a factory.
Miller gripped his small hand and changed the subject.
“I was so torn,” Miller recalls. “This baby needs his daddy.”
Miller continues to shield her grandson from the more painful experiences of having an incarcerated parent. When Hickman’s latest appeal was denied in the spring of 2021, she sent a text to Imani Wolery, urging her to keep up hope and asking “please don’t say anything to your brother.”
Wolery graduates from the UO this weekend. Her next step is New York City, where she has accepted an internship in Manhattan with the New York Innocence Project. She will spend her summer poring through stories of families whose experiences mirror her own. She continues to use her social media to spread awareness and raise donations for her father’s case, using the hashtag #justiceforjerrin.
Hickman is now represented by attorney Jed Peterson at O’Connor Weber law firm. The firm says a new appeal was filed on Hickman’s behalf in June 2022.
Despite more than a decade of setbacks and delays, the family refuses to give up.
When Hickman’s mother and children visit him in prison, they joke about his muscled physique — “You look like a superhero!” — and plan what kind of extravagant meals Hickman might be able to whip up in the kitchen soon.
They say that they imagine a Thanksgiving where he might dazzle them with a new stuffing recipe, after spending so many hours watching cooking shows on the cell TV. They imagine a Christmas where Hickman might help wrap presents, or pick out a tree for the living room. They imagine a New Year’s where he might pop a bottle of champagne.
Hickman, too, tries to hold himself together. “Sometimes I’ll see my daughter and son,” Hickman says, on a phone call from the shared cell block. Voices of other inmates can be heard in the background, waiting for a turn. “And I think, man, how long has it been?”
Miller says she doesn’t allow her son or grandchildren to see her cry. Still, sometimes, near the end of those phone calls, when the conversation is interrupted by a cold robotic voice “your call will end in 30 seconds…” there is nothing to do but set down the phone and weep.
Then, Miller takes a deep breath, gathers herself and dries her eyes.
There is work to be done.