Pair cleared in '99 Mother's Day murder celebrate release
Detroit — After nearly two decades behind bars for a murder they say they didn't commit, Justly Johnson and Kendrick Scott walked out of the Wayne County Jail into the frigid air, the arms of family and friends — and freedom..
The men gave long hugs and kisses to their moms.
"I feel glad to be home," said Scott, 40, as cheers went up around him.
"I knew I was innocent from the time I got convicted," he said.
"I feel vindicated," said Johnson, 44. "I dreamed of this moment for 20 years. It's a tragedy and it's sickening that we had to suffer 20 years in the first place for the mistakes of the Detroit Police Department and anybody that was involved in this."
The two men were cleared Wednesday by Judge Donald Knapp after the Wayne County Prosecutor's Office told the judge it was dismissing the case against the pair, who had been convicted in the shooting death of 35-year-old Lisa Kindred on Mother's Day in 1999.
The men, wearing green jail garb, smiled as Assistant Wayne County Prosecutor Athina Siringas announced the decision.
Earnestine Smith beamed after hearing her son had been exonerated after spending nearly 20 years in prison for a murder he insists he didn't commit.
"He's coming home!" she exclaimed shortly after the case against Kendrick Scott and a second defendant, Justly Johnson, convicted of killing a woman on Mother's Day in 1999, was dismissed in Wayne County Circuit Court.
"It's been too long," said Smith, who watched the proceedings from a wheelchair. "They put my child in jail for nothing."
Kaurita Lamb, a friend of Johnson's, was joyful at the news.
"I’m happy ... he was innocent," Lamb said. "He was with me the day it happened. I was his alibi and nobody asked me (to testify). I know he didn’t do it. I’m so happy. It was a long time when you’re innocent. They need to do something different with the justice system, though."
Later, Johnson's mother, Tisah Johnson, waited outside the jail for his release. "I didn't think it would happen but I never gave up faith," she said.
Johnson and Scott have steadfastly professed their innocence in the killing of Kindred, a Roseville mother who was shot in the heart as she waited outside her in-laws’ house on Bewick Street. A lone gunman rushed up and shot Kindred, who was in the family’s van with her three children.
Earlier this year, the Michigan Supreme Court ordered a new trial for Johnson and Scott.
Lawyers at the Innocence Clinic at the University of Michigan based their request for a new trial partly on testimony from Kindred's son, Charmous Skinner Jr., that Scott and Johnson did not fit the description of the man who killed his mother.
In addition to Skinner's testimony, court records say two other men, Antonio Burnette and Raymond Jackson, recanted their statements to police that Scott and Johnson murdered Kindred, saying they felt pressured to give false accounts.
UM law professor Imran Syed. who is assistant director of the Michigan Innocence Clinic, said: "it's been about nine years that I've been talking about this day with Justly."
Syed was the lead lawyer on the efforts by the Innocence Clinic to clear Johnson and Scott.
"I wish there was a way to give him back his time," said Syed.
University of Michigan law professor David Moran, a co-founder of the Michigan Innocence Clinic, said after the hearing that "it never gets old" helping defendants who were wrongfully convicted.
He said the clinic, which was established in 2009, has helped cleared 21 others in similar cases.
Former television news investigative reporter Scott Lewis, who first reported about the case for WXYZ (Ch. 7) in 2011, also helped in investigating the case to help clear the men.
Lewis, who's now a private investigator, was as emotional as family members, the lawyers and other supporters in hearing that the charges were dropped against the men.
"This is so satisfying both professionally and personally," said Lewis, adding that he was always convinced of their innocence.
One of Kindred's daughters said Wednesday she hoped the exoneration of Johnson and Scott would lead investigators to reopen the case.
"This is great for them. Now it would be really nice if they could find who actually killed my mother ...," Arynn Skinner, Skinner's eldest child, said in a Facebook post.
"I truly hope that the Detroit Police department will take another look at my mom's case. I hope they fill all of the holes that were initially made and find the person who killed her," Skinner told The News. "Justly and Kendrick are going home to their families. My mother will never come home. The only thing my family and I want is for the person who did this to pay for what they did."
Johnson advised others waiting for justice never to give up.
"I'd like to tell men that's incarcerated, continue to fight, fight for what's right ... continue to pursue justice," he said.
Gabi Silver, who represented Johnson and Scott as part of the Innocence Clinic's efforts to clear them, said it's gratifying for her, as an attorney, to see them exonerated and to see a wrong made right.
She said the men will work on beginning new lives.
"They have to pick up the pieces and try to put together a life but you know what? They've got a lot of life ahead of them," Silver said.