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Aaron Salter said freedom is the best birthday gift he's ever received.

Salter turned 36 on Wednesday — the day he walked out of the Chippewa Correctional Facility in Michigan's Upper Peninsula after serving 15 years for a murder he didn't commit.

"I just think that birthday present I got made up for everything," Salter said on Friday. "I'm going to be the best person I can be with my second chance."

Salter was sentenced to life in prison for a 2003 fatal shooting after being convicted based on one man's recollection that a "thin man" had pulled the trigger.

Salter — a hulking University of Arkansas defensive linebacker at the time — didn't fit the description. He was convicted of first-degree murder anyway.

Despite spending nearly half his life as in prison for a crime he didn't commit, Salter said Friday he doesn't harbor resentment.

"My grandmother told me before she passed away, 'Bitter eats you up,'" he said. "I just let go of the bitterness. I got a second chance in life."

Salter was feted with a barbecue Friday outside the Detroit headquarters of the Federal Defender Office, which helped exonerate him. He presented signed photographs to Jonathan Epstein and Colleen Fitzharris, two public defender attorneys who worked on his case.

"I wish I had some money to give you," Salter said before handing the lawyers the framed photos depicting him in his Kettering High School football uniform. Fitzharris's eyes welled with tears, and she embraced him.

Salter also praised Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy and her Conviction Integrity Unit, headed by attorney Valerie Newman.

"If it wasn't for Kym Worthy and the Integrity Unit, I might still be in prison," he said. "I'm glad they listened and took my case."

On Aug. 6, 2003 Jamar Luster, Kimberly Allen and Michael Payne were drinking on the front porch of a house on Parkgrove in Detroit, according to court documents, when witnesses said two people suddenly appeared and started shooting.

Luster, Allen and Payne survived the carnage, although they were inured. Bystander Willie Thomas, 36, died from gunshot wounds.

Luster later told police he thought a man named "Rob" had pulled the trigger. He described the shooter as a black male aged 26 or 27, 5-foot-7 and weighing 150 to 170 pounds — a good 80-100 pounds lighter than Salter was at the time, according to records.

At the time, Salter was home from the University of Arkansas where he'd gotten a partial football scholarship. Detroit police homicide detective Donald Olsen showed Luster a photograph of Salter while he was in the hospital.

"The whole way this thing was handled was ridiculous," said Salter's civil attorney, Wolf Mueller. "On a hunch, the detective shows (Luster) one picture while he was still recovering in the hospital, and asks 'Is this Rob?' "

"Mind you, Rob is 5'7" and 150 pounds," Mueller said. "So (Luster) says 'Yeah, that was him.' That's what this whole case is based on."

Mueller says the man known as Rob was in the hospital at the time of the killing. "The police knew that," he said.

Mueller said he will seek compensation for his client through the 2016 Michigan Wrongful Imprisonment Compensation Act, which reimburses wrongfully-convicted inmates $50,000 for each year spent in prison. Salter would be eligible for about $700,000.

Worthy said in a press release Wednesday she will recommend the to Michigan Attorney General’s Office that Salter receive wrongful conviction compensation.

Mueller also said he plans to file a federal lawsuit, alleging his client was framed by police.

"This was a total frame-job," Mueller said. "The police knew he didn't do it."

Mueller and the Federal Defender Office attorneys said they're convinced the real killer is a man who went by the street name "E" who is in prison on an unrelated crime.

Epstein said after his office became involved in the case on appeal, attorneys and former Detroit police homicide detectives visited "E" in prison, hoping to get him to confess.

"We were close," Epstein said. "He admitted he was there (at the crime scene). He had contacted us initially. At first I thought he had a conscience, but he only wanted part of a settlement."

Detroit police Sgt. Nicole Kirkwood told The Detroit News on Wednesday homicide investigators likely will re-open the case because Salter was exonerated.

Epstein said he, Fitzharris and a third federal defender office attorney, Loren Khogali, worked tirelessly on the case. 

"The system failed Aaron Salter every step of the way," Epstein said. "He was denied all the way through the appeal process, but we continued to work the case. We convinced Jim Hoppe, the FBI's main polygrapher in Detroit, to give him a polygraph test. 

"He passed with flying colors," Epstein said. "That was another piece of the puzzle."

The Federal Defender Office talked to Luster — the sole witness at Salter's trial — who said he was never certain Salter was the shooter. The office also interviewed people who corroborated Salter's alibi.

Salter told The News on Friday he presented his trial attorney, Lyle Harris, with witnesses who could back up his claim that he was home during the shooting.

"I brought witnesses right to him, but he didn't do anything," Salter said.

When told of Salter's claim, Harris replied: "Of course the defendant is going to blame me. He got convicted. If there had been ineffective counsel, why didn't anyone make that claim during the appeal process? I did the best I could to represent him."

Salter said he's not going to dwell on the past, adding his faith got him through tough times in prison.

"I (was sentenced to) natural life," he said. "I had no choice but to submit to God. Me and my mom prayed every day. I never thought (exoneration) wasn't going to happen."

"It's just good to be with my family," Salter said. "And I'm going to continue to be with them. I'm back."

ghunter@detroitnews.com
(313) 222-2134
Twitter: @GeorgeHunter_DN

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