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Elwin Donaldson

On December 7, 1980, 17-year-old Jay D. Hoffman reported to police in Madison, Wisconsin, that he had been robbed at gunpoint of $55. Hoffman said a car had pulled up beside him and the robber jumped out, while a driver waited in the car. Hoffman, who was white, gave police the license plate number of the car, which was registered to 25-year-old James Cox. Hoffman also provided a physical description of the gunman, including the type of coat he was wearing.

Police quickly went to Cox’s apartment, where they found him and his roommate, 27-year-old Elwin Donaldson. Both Donaldson and Cox were students – Donaldson at Madison Area Technical College and Cox at University of Wisconsin-Madison. Donaldson – who was Black, as was Cox – fit the physical description of the robber provided by Hoffman. Cox and Donaldson insisted they knew nothing about the robbery, and they had no criminal records. They were taken to the scene of the reported robbery, where Hoffman identified Donaldson as the gunman. The gun and stolen money were not located. Both men were charged with armed robbery.

The trial of Donaldson and Cox began in February 1982 in Dane County Circuit Court before a jury, with Judge Mark Frankel presiding. Attorney Noreen Bengston represented Donaldson, and attorney Lee Cullen represented Cox. Hoffman testified and identified Donaldson. Midway through the trial, Judge Frankel dismissed the charge against Cox because of a lack of evidence. However, Hoffman remained steadfast in his identification of Donaldson. The jury found Donaldson guilty of armed robbery and he was sent to jail to await sentencing.

Two months later, police in Texas arrested Hoffman for burglary. While speaking with police in Texas, Hoffman said that he had falsely accused two men of robbing him in Wisconsin and one was going to prison. “I do not want [Donaldson] to sit in prison for what he did not do,” he told police. “I have thought about it for a while and I just want to get it out in the open.” Hoffman did not provide a reason for fabricating the robbery.

Madison police sent Detective Francis Retelle to Texas to interview Donaldson. Based on Retelle’s report, Dane County Assistant District Attorney David Dabrowski contacted Judge Frankel, who ordered Donaldson’s release from jail.

In late April 1982, at a special hearing, Frankel reversed Donaldson’s conviction and the robbery charge was dismissed. Frankel told Donaldson that he was “owed a tremendous apology” on behalf of the community and had been the “true victim here of an incredible wrong.”

In March 1983, Hoffman was convicted of perjury in Dane County Circuit Court and sentenced to five years in prison.

On May 24, 1984, the Wisconsin legislature unanimously passed a bill authorizing payment of $25,000 in compensation to Donaldson. The payment was approved by Wisconsin Governor Anthony S. Earl on May 31, 1984.

The Madison branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People awarded Cox $10,400 at its annual banquet in October 1984. The money had been raised through an NAACP drive to help reimburse Cox for his losses because he was not eligible for state compensation.

- Meghan Barrett Cousino
Most Serious Crime:Robbery
Reported Crime Date:1980
Sentence:Not sentenced
Age at the date of crime:27
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation