Detroit — A 44-year-old Detroit man who has spent more than 20 years in prison for a 1996 killing was granted a new trial Monday by a Wayne County judge after a bloody thumb print on the murder weapon was found to belong to someone else.
Lamarr Monson showed no emotion as Wayne Circuit Judge Shannon Walker read aloud her order granting him a new trial in the killing of 12-year-old Christina Brown.
Monson was expected to be released from custody after Walker granted him a $250,000 bond, noting he has not had any violent incidents in prison. Monson can be freed after posting 10 percent of the bond, which relatives said they planned to do by the end of the week.
The judge said the thumb print on the toilet tank lid used to bludgeon Brown in the Jan. 20, 1996, killing in a west-side apartment — which sat for years in a Detroit police evidence storage room, and was not presented during Monson’s trial — prompted her decision.
“After carefully reviewing the evidence ... from the toilet tank lid ... this evidence, in the court’s opinion, meets the threshold for a new trial,” the judge said.
Monson’s case involves drug dealing, allegations of prosecutors withholding evidence and police coercing a false confession, and a woman claiming she’d been kidnapped and held for months by a different man she believes is the killer.
Monson’s mother, Delores Monson, was in tears as she spoke in the courthouse following Monday’s ruling.
“I want to kiss my son, and hug him, and tell him I love him,” she said. “I just thank God he allowed me to see this day. This is a great day, and it’s going to get even better when he comes home.”
David Moran, head of the University of Michigan Innocence Clinic, which took up the case and discovered the bloody print, said he was “elated” at the judge’s decision.
“We’ve been on this case for 5 years, and it’s the culmination of a lot of hard work by a lot of people,” said Moran, who claims police and prosecutors suppressed the toilet tank evidence, a charge prosecutors have denied.
Jason Williams, Wayne County Prosecutor Chief of Appeals, said in a written statement: “The court’s decision is being reviewed for possible appeal to the Court of Appeals.”
Bill Proctor, a former television news reporter whose agency Proving Innocence also worked on the case, said the crucial evidence should have been presented during the trial.
“This is a great day for justice,” he said. “This is a family that’s had an empty seat at the Thanksgiving table for more than 20 years. This wrongful conviction should have never happened, since police and prosecutors have had this evidence from day one. They sat on it.”
Hours after Brown’s body was found lying in a pool of blood on her apartment’s bathroom floor, Monson told police he didn’t do it, although the next day, he signed a confession stating he was the killer. The Innocence Clinic has argued Monson didn’t know what he was signing.
In the confession, Monson said he had stabbed the girl, which matched investigators’ initial theory of how she died. However, his attorneys pointed out the Wayne County Medical Examiner later determined Brown had died of blunt force trauma, likely caused by blows from a ceramic toilet lid — and Monson never mentioned hitting Brown with the lid.
During hearings seeking a new trial, prosecutors insisted the print, and Monson’s omission of any mention of the beating in his statement to police, did not prove his innocence.
Monson was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 30-50 years. He admitted he had a sexual relationship with the underage Brown, which prosecutors say turned deadly when the girl found out he was being unfaithful. Prosecutors say she attacked him with a steak knife, but that he got control of the weapon and stabbed her 18 times before bludgeoning her to death.
Monson, who was 23 at the time of the murder and claims Brown told him she was 17, sought a new trial after it was discovered the fingerprints on the toilet lid belonged to Robert Lewis, who lived in the apartment building where the killing happened, after they were matched by Michigan State Police.
Lewis’ prints were discovered in 2015, after his ex-girlfriend, Shellena Bentley, walked into a police precinct three years earlier and claimed he was Brown’s killer. Lewis has not been charged with the crime, and prosecutors through the years insisted Monson’s conviction is solid.
After Bentley’s claim, Innocence Clinic attorneys had the toilet lid re-examined. During earlier hearings, a fingerprint expert testified the bloody thumbprint did not belong to Monson. Assistant Prosecutor David McCreedy argued the print could have been left there by someone else after the assault.
In court filings, prosecutors also said it’s not unusual that Lewis’ prints were found on the lid, since he frequently bought drugs in the unheated first-floor apartment.
Bentley, who lived in Brown’s apartment building at 2752 W. Boston on Detroit’s west side, testified during a September hearing that on the night of the killing, Lewis twice bought crack cocaine from Brown and that they smoked it in her apartment upstairs. When the drugs were gone, she said Lewis went back downstairs to ask Brown to give him more crack on credit.
“When he came back up, he had blood on him; it was dripping off his fingernails,” she said. “He said we’ve gotta get out of here. ... (He was acting) frantic ... like he did something.”
Bentley said Lewis then walked her to his duplex around the corner, which he shared with his brother. She said Lewis’ brother said Lewis should have killed Bentley like Lewis killed Brown.
Bentley claims she was held against her will more than a month but eventually was able to slip away. She said she hid out at her daughter’s house in Detroit before moving to Pontiac and Saginaw.
In 2012, Bentley went to a Detroit police precinct and told them she suspected Lewis was Brown’s killer.
On the day of the killing, Monson told police at about 1:30 p.m. he walked into the apartment where he and Brown sold marijuana and crack cocaine and found Brown’s bloodied, beaten body lying face-up on the bathroom floor.
Although in his first statement, Monson told police he had nothing to do with the killing, he signed a document the next day that said he’d stabbed Brown to death after she attacked him.
“(Monson) said he was just given a piece of paper and told to sign it without having a chance to read it,” Moran said.
Moran said Monson’s confession was the only evidence presented during his trial linking him to the killing. He was convicted by a jury in March 1997.
It was also pointed out during the hearing that police had never checked Monson’s clothing or car for blood.
In previous court filings, Moran said Monson is entitled to a new trial in part because Wayne County prosecutors did not disclose they’d received anonymous tips from Bentley in 1996 identifying her ex-boyfriend as Brown’s killer.
“This information was only discovered when Bentley came forward in 2012,” Moran wrote in a motion seeking a new trial for Monson. “It is now apparent that the state had in fact suppressed material, exculpatory evidence in violation of Mr. Monson’s constitutional right to due process.”
Following Monday’s hearing, Monson’s uncle, Edgar Thomas, said after the judge’s ruling, he’s confident a new trial will result in a different verdict.
“The evidence makes it pretty clear he didn’t do it,” Thomas said. He added he planned to put up the money to posts Monson’s bond, “if not (Monday) then certainly by the end of the week.”
Delores Monson said she hopes prosecutors will drop the charges against her son: “Hasn’t he suffered long enough?”