Wrongfully convicted man sues Detroit cop, city for $75M

George Hunter
The Detroit News

A man who spent 15 years in prison for a murder he didn't commit is suing a Detroit police detective and the city for $75 million, alleging they violated his civil rights.

The lawsuit, filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court on behalf of Aaron Salter, claims homicide detective Donald Olsen deliberately withheld evidence in the 2003 fatal shooting for which Salter was convicted. 

Aaron Salter, who spent 15 years in prison for a murder he did not commit, speaks during a press conference to announce a $75 million lawsuit against homicide detective Donald Olsen and the city of Detroit.

Salter was released from prison in August — on his 36th birthday — after Wayne Circuit Judge Annette Berry dismissed the charges on the recommendation of Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy.

The prosecutor's Conviction Integrity Unit dug into the case and found Salter had been convicted "based primarily on mistaken identification by the main witness in the case," Worthy said in a press release issued when Salter was freed.

The witness told police he saw a "thin man" pull the trigger the night of Aug. 6, 2003, when Willie Thomas was killed. Salter, a college linebacker, did not fit the description.

Other witnesses told police a man whose nickname was "E" had pulled the trigger. But according to the lawsuit, Olsen never told that to prosecutors.

"In the police file that the Conviction Integrity Unit discovered (after Salter's conviction), there was a picture of this guy 'E' in a folder marked 'suspect,'" Salter's attorney Wolfgang Mueller said during a press conference in his Farmington Hills offices.

"The officer (Olsen) never disclosed that to the prosecutor," Mueller said. "That would’ve made all the difference in the world. People in the neighborhood were saying 'E' was the shooter; he was 6 foot, 200 pounds. If that would've been part of the case, we wouldn't be sitting here right now."

Detroit Corporation Counsel Lawrence Garcia declined to comment.

The night of the murder, Jamar Luster, Kimberly Allen and Michael Payne were drinking on the front porch of a house on Parkgrove in Detroit, according to court documents. Witnesses said two people suddenly appeared and started shooting.

Luster, Allen and Payne ran for safety and survived, although they sustained injuries. Bystander Thomas was hit and 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.

Olsen showed Luster a single photograph of Salter, according to court records — which is a deviation from normal police procedure, which is to show witnesses a "six-pack" of six photos. Luster fingered Salter as the triggerman, court records show. Salter was charged with first-degree murder, among other charges.

"Our lawsuit alleges constitutional violations in connection with the single photo ID that was shown to Mr. Luster," Mueller said. "Our Supreme Court and the Michigan Supreme Court all said a single photo ID is one of the most suggestive and inappropriate methods a police officer can use."

During Salter's preliminary examination, Olsen said he determined Salter was the main suspect after Luster described the shooters.

Olsen testified he “took a hunch that it was (Salter) because” Luster had mentioned “that he had seen the person before on a few occasions," court records show.

After doing “some research at the precinct,” Olsen then said he decided Salter might be the shooter, according to court filings.

During Tuesday's press conference, Salter said he's "grateful I get to be the success story," and thanked Worthy, Integrity Unit director Valerie Newman, and Jonathan Epstein of the Federal Defender's Office, which worked on his case for years before the county integrity unit got involved. 

Salter said he has started an organization, Innocence Maintained, which aims to "help guys who are innocent when they come home (from prison)," he said.

The organization would help wrongfully-convicted ex-prisoners get settled after their freed, Salter said.

"We already fought to be free; why should we fight for jobs and all that?" Salter said.

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Twitter: @GeorgeHunter_DN