Exonerated ex-convicts 'need to be recognized,' seek help
It's been just over a year since Aaron Salter was released from a Michigan prison where he served 15 years for a murder he didn't commit, and the sights and sounds of incarceration still linger.
Salter, a 250-pound football player at the University of Arkansas, was convicted on the testimony of a man who told police he saw a "thin" man "firing a gun" at two men Aug. 6, 2003, on the porch of a home on Detroit's east side. Willie Thomas, 36, a bystander, was killed.
Salter, who was released from prison on his 36th birthday in August 2018, is not alone in the recurring memories of what it is like to be wrongly incarcerated.
"I went in prison with a passion to get that wrongful conviction off me," Salter said.
On Tuesday night, Salter joined five other men at a west-side Detroit church to discuss life after exoneration. Topics included coping with the frustration of lost years and the challenge of finding housing, employment, education and mental health counseling.
Pastor Terrence Devezin of the United Kingdom Church, where the group gathered, said he plans to apologize publicly to the exonerees and and wants to others do the same, including public officials. He also wants to see collective efforts, especially from other clergy, to help them restart their lives.
"My heart goes out to these men," he said. "If I had a million dollars, I would write you (men) a check."
Devezin says the exonerees are "heroes that need to be recognized." To that end, the pastor plans a rally and service Oct. 27 dedicated to 11 former convicts who were recently exonerated.
Detroit City Council member Roy McCalister Jr. says he plans to attend the event.
"We need to apologize and we embrace these brothers and bring them back into (society)," said McCalister. "No matter what is given to them, nothing can replace what was taken from them. It was the (judicial) system that failed them."
McCalister said Wednesday he plans to honor the 11 exonerees during a council session Oct. 29 and, like the pastor, is looking for ways to line the exonerees up with organizations and individuals who can help them find jobs, places to live and meet whatever other needs they might have.
Justly Johnson, 44, and Kendrick Scott, 41, can attest to the challenges exonerated former inmates face when they re-enter society. The two men were freed in November 2018 after being exonerated in the 1999 Mother's Day slaying of 35-year-old Lisa Kindred.
"There are a lot of obstacles," Scott said Tuesday. "It's been hard."
Johnson agreed. "it's been almost a year since we got out and we're still going through red tape."
Johnson said he came home to missing family members: his brother and a cousin had died while he was in prison. Yet, Johnson said, he "never lost faith ... never lost hope" he would be cleared of the murder and released from prison.
Johnson is suing two Detroit police officers who he says framed him and Scott for Kindred's murder.
The recent release of the Netflix series "When They See Us" has heightened discussion about wrongfully convicted Americans. The show's episodes focus on the Central Park Five, a group of teens who spent 13 years in prison for a 1989 rape in New York City before being exonerated in 2002.
Tuesday's discussion also included questions about when the men will get money from the state's Wrongful Conviction compensation fund. Under a 2016 Michigan law, wrongly convicted state residents qualify for $50,000 for every year spent in prison.
Mubarez Ahmed was released from prison in September 2018 after spending 16 years in prison for a double homicide after a judge agreed there was reasonable doubt of his guilt.
Ahmed, who's now 49, was sentenced in 2002 to 40-60 years in prison in the Feb. 9, 2001, deaths of Lavelle Griffin and LaTanya White, who were shot in their car at the intersection of Kirkwood and Lumley Street on Detroit's west side.
The eyewitness in the case told University of Michigan Innocence Clinic investigators that the Detroit police detective over the case showed her a photo of Ahmed just before a police lineup and instructed her to single him out.
Last December, Ahmed sued the city of Detroit and the police department in federal court.
Ahmed wasn't expected to be paroled until February 2045. Like the other exonerees, he left prison penniless and hopes to be compensated by the state.
"I haven't seen a dollar," Ahmed said at the gathering of the men, who at one point had met one another and worked on their appeals at a prison law library. "It it wasn't for my little brother, who owns a gas station where I work seven days a week, I would have starved."