Faulty hair evidence frees man jailed since '76

George Hunter
The Detroit News

A 61-year-old man who has been in prison since 1976 was freed Thursday after a Wayne County Circuit judge agreed to vacate his sentence because his first-degree murder conviction was based on a discredited scientific method.

Thursday’s release of Ledora Watkins makes him the longest-serving inmate in the United States to have his sentence vacated, according to the National Registry of Exonerations.

The previous record for the most time served in prison before being having a sentence vacated was Ricky Jackson, who was incarcerated 39 years, three months and nine days in Ohio for a murder conviction before being released in 2015.

Watkins was convicted April 15, 1976, and sentenced to life in prison for the Sept. 8, 1975, murder of Yvette Ingram, a 25-year-old teacher at Burroughs Junior High School in Detroit. She was shot at close range inside her apartment.

Watkins’ conviction was based in large part on microscopic hair comparison analysis, which last year was determined to be unreliable by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.

“I want to thank everybody for everything that you’ve done, for all the support, for all the work you’ve done,” Watkins said outside the Wayne County Jail after being released Wednesday afternoon. “I want to thank you, I appreciate you, I love you and I don’t know how I’m ever going to repay you.”

His lawyer, Marla Mitchell-Cichon, gave him a big hug and said to him: “My grandma used to say, ‘You name it, we’ll do it.’ That’s what we’re doing today. We’ll see you in a little bit. Just enjoy some private time with your family.”

Watkins said he wants to regain his appetite and spend some time catching up with family members.

“It’s taken 41 years and eight months to get this done,” Watkins said after the judge announced his ruling. “I’m not a perfect man, but I’m a man that hopes, who is searching for mercy and grace. I haven’t been a perfect son, a perfect brother — but I’m not a murderer.”

The Western Michigan University Cooley Law School Innocence Project filed a motion to dismiss Watkins’ case. The claim of innocence was partially based on new evidence — the finding that hair comparison analysis is not a reliable scientific method.

Also, a co-defendant who was granted immunity in exchange for testifying against Watkins later recanted his story and swore Watkins had nothing to do with the murder.

Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy stipulated to the Innocence Project motion, which was granted Thursday by Judge Bruce Morrow.

“I can’t disagree with the stipulation,” Morrow said. “All right, Mr. Watkins, that about does it from my end of it.”

The people in the packed courtroom erupted in applause. Several dabbed their eyes with tissues. The judge then allowed Watkins to go through the courtroom, hugging relatives and supporters from the Cooley Innocence Project.

“I’m just grateful to God,” said Watkins’ cousin, Charlene Turner-Johnson. “This is truly amazing and overwhelming.”

Before rendering his ruling, Morrow asked Watson several questions.

“How come you didn’t give up?” the judge asked.

“I couldn’t give up ... too many people were fighting for me,” Watkins said. “And a lot of them aren’t with us today. For me to give up ... their work would’ve been in vain.”

The judge asked: “You mean you weren’t playing checkers every day?”

“I did a lot of self-examination,” Watkins said. “I realized I didn’t like the guy I was looking at in the mirror, so maybe I can make a change. I’m still making changes; still trying; still hoping.”

“Do what you’ve been doing for 41 years,” the judge said. “Don’t stop. Rest if you must, but don’t quit.”

“I started going back to school,” Watkins said. “I’m about six credits short of a degree. I’ve been trying to work and mentor younger prisoners. It’s just part of the process of trying to stay active in a contributory way.”

“Trying to hold onto your humanity ... to not let that also be taken from you,” Morrow said.

At that point, Mitchell-Cichon, the director of the Cooley Law School Innocence Project, began crying. Morrow stepped down from the bench to offer her a tissue.

Microscopic hair comparison analysis involves an examiner using a high-powered microscope to view hair found at a crime scene and compare it to a known sample, to see if similarities exist. If there are enough similarities in categories like color, pigment aggregation, and shaft form, it’s deemed a match.

The method has long been criticized as unreliable. The FBI crime lab in 2015 limited its use of hair microscopy, introducing it only in conjunction with DNA testing.

A 2015 FBI analysis of 286 convictions before 2000 found that in more than 95 percent of the cases, forensic examiners gave flawed testimony, overstating hair comparison results in ways that favored prosecutors. Among the cases reviewed were those of 32 defendants sentenced to death, 14 of whom had been executed or died in prison.

The hair evidence used to convict Watkins no longer exists, and cannot be tested for DNA. DNA testing in criminal cases began in the mid-1980s.

“Hair comparison analysis is junk science,” Mitchell-Cichon said. “In 1976, they linked (Watkins) to the crime scene through hair comparison, and the testimony of a co-defendant who later recanted his story.”

In November 1975, 10 days after Highland Park Police officer Gary Vazana was found murdered in his living room — a killing that was staged to look like a suicide — it was revealed during Watkins’ preliminary examination that the cop had ordered the execution of Ingram, who was believed to be hoarding cocaine and cash.

According to Travis Herndon, Watkins’ co-defendant, the cop loaned the pair his Buick, surgical gloves and a .38 blue-steel revolver.

In addition to her teaching job, Ingram moonlighted as a dope dealer, police said. Several pounds of marijuana and records of drug transactions were found in her flat on Hubbell after her death.

Herndon was granted immunity in return for testifying against Watkins. Herndon said he and Watkins forced their way into Ingram’s flat at gunpoint. Herndon testified that Watkins told him to put a pillow over Ingram’s head to muffle the sound of gunfire before shooting her twice in the right temple.

Herndon later recanted his testimony.

An expert witness testified during the trial that a microscopic comparison of a strand of hair found on Ingram’s pants matched in 15 points of comparison with Watkins’ hair sample.

A report last year by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology found that expert evidence based on a number of forensic methods, including bite mark analysis and microscopic hair comparisons — is not reliable.


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Twitter: @GeorgeHunter_DN

Sarah Rahal contributed.