Kalkaska — Jamie Lee Peterson lives about a mile from the courtroom where he was wrongfully convicted of murder. He said it’s not his first choice but he doesn’t have too many options.
Everyday life can be a struggle after spending nearly two decades in prison for crimes he didn’t commit, he said. Medical issues hold him back from full-time employment. His $700 Social Security check hardly covers the rent. And food assistance doesn’t quite float the grocery bills.
“I just want to get my house and my girlfriend from downstate and start a new life together,” he said.
Peterson, 42, nearly 20 years ago was convicted of the murder of Kalkaska resident Geraldine Montgomery, 68, who had been raped and left to die in the trunk of her car. DNA testing later vindicated Peterson and he was released three years ago after serving 17 years in prison.
The tattered walls of Peterson’s concrete shanty don’t offer much more space than the confines of his old prison cell. But his former attorney, Bob Carey, hopes that justice will continue to be served as a federal civil case seeking compensation for the lost years of Peterson’s life moves forward.
The complaint, first filed about two years ago, alleges Kalkaska County’s former prosecutor Bruce Donnelly, former Sheriff Dave Israel, and multiple members of the Michigan State and Kalkaska police departments violated his due process rights among several other constitutional violations.
His case rests motionless in U.S. District Court with no scheduled hearings listed on the docket.
“We have a flawed justice system up here. It’s everywhere. It’s northern Michigan. It’s just flawed,” Carey said. “When you convict innocent people, that’s a flaw. There is no way to put a price tag on it. It has to be lots of money as far as I’m concerned.”
Prosecutors, even faced with new technology that could shed light on previously untested DNA evidence, refused to revisit the Peterson case for months, Carey said. It wasn’t until the case was turned over to the University of Michigan and Northwestern University before it gained steam and eventually reversed Peterson’s convictions.
Jason Anthony Ryan, 39, was later charged in December 2013 with the crimes for which Peterson was imprisoned after DNA evidence pointed to his involvement. Ryan will spend the rest of his life at a federal prison in Montcalm County after a jury found him guilty in 2015.
Many village residents remain confident Peterson was involved in the crimes despite his exoneration, Carey said. That’s the “worst part.”
Israel — even with a federal lawsuit levied against him — still contended law enforcement handled the case properly.
“As far as I’m concerned, he knew too much about the situation,” Israel said. “I never felt like he was coerced. He was given every opportunity to tell his side as far as I know. I know he was involved with it. ”
But Carey never doubted Peterson’s innocence. Carey in the 1990s was first assigned to defend Peterson as a court-appointed attorney. He isn’t working on the civil suit but he’s being honored next month by the “Proving Innocence” project for his work that led to Peterson’s exoneration. It feels “wonderful” to receive the recognition, he said.
He contends the Peterson case is indicative of a much larger pattern of injustice.
Peterson — with organic brain damage that primarily affects his social skills — was under “extreme psychological pressure and manipulation” during police interrogations, Carey said. He confessed to sexually assaulting and killing Montgomery but actually knew nothing about the crime.
“His initial answers to questions were inaccurate and even nonsensical,” the civil complaint reads. “However, investigators fed Jamie information bit by bit until he spun a story that matched investigators’ theory of the crime.”
Carey for years latched onto the case out of a simple desire for justice. He recalled the dozens of dismissed appeals that stalled Peterson’s release at the local, state and federal level. Multiple attorneys came and went over the years but Carey remained steadfast. Peterson was innocent.
“I opened a law office in this small town to fight for justice,” Carey said. “I knew he was innocent. I knew it. The facts were there. That’s the good part. He got out. It’s wonderful to finally get justice but it’s not over. Justice is very elusive in American courts.”
Peterson said his civil case is “beyond money” but noted the extra cash wouldn’t hurt. He’d like to find another place to live and start a fresh life for himself but few landlords are willing to rent space to a registered sex offender. It’s a fact he’s learned to accept over the last three years, he said.
Carey contended 23-year-old Peterson’s prior criminal sexual conduct conviction arose from a purely consensual relationship with a 15-year-old girl. They were “in love,” he said. But the eyes of the law saw things differently.
Peterson’s civil suit should eventually pay dividends by the time it finishes slugging through a tedious and often overcomplicated court system, Carey added.
“It’s going. It’s just slow,” Carey said. “Cops lie. We put our mentally ill in prisons. They get taken advantage of. There are some bad people out there but not that many. We need to fix the system.”