Families hopeful as pair seeks new trial in ’99 killing

Oralandar Brand-Williams
The Detroit News

Earnestine Smith says she knows her son is not a murderer and hopes Wednesday’s hearing before the Michigan Supreme Court will lead to his release from prison after nearly two decades.

Earnestine Smith, with private investigator Scott Lewis, is hopeful son Kendrick Scott and Justly Johnson will be released.

She is buoyed by the recent cases of exoneration involving other Detroiters who have been cleared and freed after spending years behind bars for crimes they didn’t commit.

Smith’s son, Kendrick Scott, 39, and a friend, Justly Johnson, 43, are asking Michigan’s high court to order a new trial in the 1999 Mother’s Day murder of Lisa Kindred, 35, on the city’s east side.

The Roseville resident was shot in the heart as she waited outside her in-laws’ house on Bewick Street on the city’s east side. A lone gunman rushed up and shot Kindred, who was in the family’s van with her three children.

Scott

The woman drove off after being shot and made it three blocks to a gas station, where she collapsed. Kindred died at a hospital. Authorities do not believe, according to court documents, that Kindred’s case was an attempted robbery or carjacking but was a murder-for-hire.

Smith, 75, said her son was not the person who ended Kindred’s life.

“He’s innocent,” she said. “ I just know he didn’t do it because Kendrick was not that kind of kid. He would never do something like that to a person.”

Smith said the description of Kindred’s killer did not match the physical description of her son or Johnson.

Johnson

“They put everything on them because they couldn’t find the person who did it,” she said.

Attorneys for the Innocence Clinic at the University of Michigan are helping the two men, both sentenced to life in prison, fight for a new trial.

“When the full record of this case is properly considered, it is clear that Mr. Johnson and Mr. Scott are innocent men who have spent 18 years in prison for a crime they did not commit,” the attorneys argued in legal briefs. “This Court should reverse and remand this case for a new trial.”

According to court documents, two men, Antonio Burnette and Raymond Jackson, told police that Scott and Johnson murdered Kindred but later recanted their statements, saying they felt pressured to give false accounts. Burnette withdrew his statement during testimony at the pair’s original trials and testified again at a 2015 evidentiary hearing in the men’s bid for a new trial that he had falsely fingered Scott and Johnson as the killers.

Jackson has since died. One of his relatives testified that he told her his earlier statements incriminating Johnson and Scott were false.

In its appellate briefs filed in January, the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office argues, among its many points, “Despite what these defendants and probably all prisoners in the Michigan Department of Corrections would like the law to be, the law that actually exists holds that it is not enough to warrant a new trial merely for a prisoner to find a witness willing to challenge the proofs at trial.”

The prosecutor’s office also maintains that the witnesses who implicated Johnson and Scott were “consistent” in their testimony.

The Detroit Police Department did not respond to a request for comment on its investigation of the case.

During a call Monday from the Macomb Correctional Facility, Scott told The Detroit News he is innocent. “I’ve been praying for this (day) for 19 years,” he said.

Scott said Johnson took the stand in his own defense, but his lawyer wouldn’t let him testify in his own defense.

“Hopefully, the judges will see the law was wrong and the truth (will come out) after all these years,” he said.

Johnson said in a phone call from prison Monday that “we’re 100 percent innocent. I’m kind of shocked we’re still in prison, given the exculpatory evidence they have.”

Kindred

Johnson said he’s feeling “good ... anxious” and “hopes everything goes our way” Wednesday before the high court.

The slaying was witnessed by Kindred’s son, Charmous Skinner Jr., who was 8 at the time. Police never interviewed the child, said Imran Syed, assistant director of UM’s Innocence Clinic.

The UM clinic got Johnson and Scott’s case from the Wisconsin Innocence Clinic, which Johnson had approached years before for help with his appeal.

The UM clinic set up a photo lineup for Skinner, which he viewed in October 2011, and he did not identify either Johnson or Scott as his mother’s murderer.

“I will never forget the person’s face, and if it is him, I will testify against him,” Skinner told Lewis in a 2011 letter, according to court documents. “But if it’s not, I would not mind testifying on (suspects’) behalf.”

Wayne County Circuit Judge James Callahan ruled that Skinner’s recollection of the night his mother was killed was not credible because his sight was enabled only by a dome light in the vehicle.

Skinner, who lives in Pennsylvania, has a conviction for perjury in an unrelated 2011 case out of that state. Michigan Court of Appeals Judge Deborah Servitto said that should have no bearing on his testimony about his mother’s murder.

Former WJBK-TV (Ch. 2) reporter Scott Lewis, now a private investigator, tracked down Skinner, who has testified that Scott and Johnson are not the ones who killed his mother.

Lewis found out about the Johnson and Scott case while he was at WJBK and has been working on it ever since.

“I was shocked when I read the entire police file and all the transcripts,” Lewis said. “I just couldn’t believe that Justly was in prison for life with such flimsy evidence.”

Johnson has said he was not in the neighborhood at the time of Kindred’s killing. According to Lewis, Johnson gave police a detailed timeline of his movements that night. Lewis said he saw “no evidence that either the police nor the defense attorney checked out his alibi.”

Lewis said there was “no record” of police ever interviewing Kindred’s son.

Lewis said it took a long time to find Kindred’s son, now in his 20s, whom Lewis said told him “he saw everything and the cops never talked to him.”

A Wayne County judge refused in 2015 to invalidate Johnson and Scott’s convictions, finding Skinner’s testimony unreliable; the Court of Appeals affirmed.

The state Supreme Court, in allowing the appeal, will address whether the trial court should have granted Johnson or Scott a new trial on grounds of newly discovered evidence; whether, even if Johnson’s previous claims of new evidence are barred, the evidence on which those claims were based must still be considered; and whether lawyers for Johnson or Scott could be considered ineffective for failing to interview Skinner or call him as a witness at trial.

Johnson’s only surviving sibling, Raynette Johnson, said Monday she is “prayerful and hopeful” the justices will order a new trial for her brother and Scott.

Raynette Johnson said there was “no evidence” against her brother and that “the cops just wanted to close the case.”

She added: “It’s been 19 years. They deserve a new trial.”