Killing heightens rift between cops, prosecutor

George Hunter, and Christine Ferretti
DetroitNews

A killing in an auto parts store parking lot last month has intensified a longstanding rift between Detroit police and Wayne County prosecutors over how criminal cases are handled.

Police say the Feb. 25 killing of Jeffrey Davis in the lot of Ryan’s Pick A Part on Detroit’s west side could have been prevented if prosecutors had signed a request nine months ago to charge him with a May 2014 killing. In that case, witnesses told investigators Davis was alone in a house with the victim, armed with a pistol, and that he hurriedly threw some clothes in a bag and fled the scene after telling people the victim was dead.

Investigators said the witness statements were enough to get the warrant signed, which they requested in May 2016. Prosecutors told The News they sent the request back to police in October because it required more investigation.

Police Chief James Craig insists the ball was in the prosecutors’ court because they say the October request merely asked police to locate witnesses to be interviewed by prosecutors. Prosecutors refute that claim.

Craig and other police officials say they were waiting on prosecutors to tell them when their schedules allowed them to conduct the interviews, which, police claim, never happened.

“This is a prime example of what can go wrong,” Craig said. “We did our due diligence to identify the suspect of a violent crime, and the warrant sat there for nine months, when the suspect should’ve been taken into custody. Instead, he’s now a homicide victim. Whether he’s a suspect or not, he lost his life. That’s a problem.”

Assistant Prosecutor Maria Miller said the police assertions about the case are “factually incorrect.” She provided a redacted copy of a Return to Warrant Memo dated Oct. 28, 2016.

“The case was reviewed by an assistant prosecutor and a memo returning the case back to DPD was prepared on October 24, 2016 and sent to the DPD Homicide officer in charge of the case on October 28, 2016 via email requesting additional work,” Miller said in a written statement. “DPD has its own database that reflects the identical facts that we have presented to you as well.

“The data entries and notes are prepared by DPD personnel. Their own entries confirm that the requested work has not been performed and that nothing has been communicated by DPD to WCPO regarding completing the investigation.”

Detroit Police Deputy Chief David LeValley countered prosecutors asked police to locate witnesses so they could be reinterviewed. “We told prosecutors we were ready to locate the witnesses whenever their schedule allowed for the interviews,” he said. “They never followed up.”

The squabble over Davis’ case is the latest complaint by Craig about how other branches of the criminal justice system handle cases. Craig aired out his displeasure last week during a speech at the Detroit Policy Conference when he said: “If the prosecution is not there and the courts are not doing right, candidly, what are we to do? If we’re going to effectively turn this city around, we all need to be in sync.”

Following Craig’s comments, Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy told reporters: “Our policy in Wayne County (is) we don’t charge cases to make them go better. If the police bring us a case, we want to make sure the investigation is correct. We want to make sure it’s done right the first time. We want to make sure we make the best decision we can make at the time with the information we have.

“We are not going to just take the word of the police investigation. Nothing against the police, but we’re the ones that have to stand up in court and defend that. We’re the ones that can lose our license if all the evidence are not turned over.

“So the basic schism between the police and prosecutors through time has always been police think a case is closed when they bring it to the prosecutor’s office for a decision. It’s not closed until there’s a verdict one way or the other. We can’t charge every case. We have a legal standard that we must follow.”

Tension between police and prosecutors is built into the criminal justice system, former federal prosecutor and Wayne State University law professor Peter Henning said.

“Prosecutors see themselves as a check in the system,” Henning said. “From the police point of view, they think prosecutors want a bow wrapped around every case; but from prosecutors’ viewpoint, what police think is enough evidence to convict may not be, even though there’s enough probable cause for an arrest. Prosecutors aren’t going to go forward with a case if it’s unlikely they’ll get a conviction.

“So there is some natural tension between the two, and that happens everywhere. It’s certainly not unique to Detroit. But if you have a personality conflict between the heads of two agencies, it can exacerbate the issue.”

Michigan State Police Lt. Michael Shaw said there sometimes are rifts between criminal justice agencies but stressed it’s important to openly discuss any disagreements.

“Any time you work closely with any agency, there are some bumps in the road, and I’d be pulling the wool over your eyes if I said there are no bumps, not just with prosecutors, but with other law enforcement partners,” Shaw said. “But when there are issues, we’re able to discuss them internally and work them out. I’m sure there are some things we do that make prosecutors mad, but hopefully they feel the same way: That they can talk to us and work out any issues.”

Craig has long complained about Worthy’s charging decisions. He was upset earlier this year after Worthy turned down a request by police to charge three men for posting Facebook messages that allegedly threatened police officers. Worthy blamed “substandard” police work in the investigation and said detectives did not read some of the suspects their Miranda rights — a claim police have refuted.

Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette later charged one of the suspects, Nheru Littleton, with making a terroristic threat and using a computer to commit a crime, both 20-year felonies.

Littleton allegedly wrote: “Black Lives Matter. Black people should start killing all white cops just like they are killing us!!!”

State prosecutors said during a court hearing last month Littleton’s post amounts to a threat. Littleton’s attorney called the charges “hyperbole.” Wayne Circuit Judge Vonda Evans said she will rule Tuesday on the defense’s motion to have the case dismissed.

Craig hasn’t confined his complaints to prosecutors. He also has had harsh words for judges for sentencing and bail decisions, including a recent case in which a Wayne County judge reduced carjacking charges and granted probation to a man who forced an 85-year-old woman from her vehicle.

“I’m not suggesting that because we make an arrest that the prosecutor shall file or judges need to put these lengthy sentences,” Craig said during last week’s speech. “I’m saying it has to be equitable.”

Following Craig’s remarks, Worthy insisted her office doesn’t charge a case “just because everybody says we should” or because “the public is clamoring at us.”

“You can’t be popular in this job every day. I’m not trying to be. I’m trying to follow the law,” she said. “We’re not going to be able to charge every case the police bring to us. It can be frustrating. Sometimes, we know the person is factually guilty. But if we can’t prove that case beyond a reasonable (doubt), we cannot and will not charge it. We’re not going to play games with this legal justice system.”

ghunter@detroitnews.com