'Humbled' exoneree savors release after 25 years in prison

George Hunter
The Detroit News

Detroit — Ramon Ward walked into a Wayne County courtroom Thursday wearing an inmate's olive drab garb and a free man's grin.

“I’m humbled to be before you today, with the grace and blessing of our creator, God," Ward said, reading from a hand-written statement after Wayne Circuit Judge Donald L. Knapp told him he'd be released from prison, where he served 25 years for a murder he didn't commit.

Ward, 45, was convicted of killing two women in 1995, based solely on the testimony of a pair of jailhouse snitches and a document a Detroit homicide cop claimed was Ward's confession, which he refused to sign because he insisted it wasn't true.

After years of unsuccessful state and federal appeals, Wayne County prosecutors Thursday dropped the charges against Ward, following a review by the office's Conviction Integrity Unit. It's the 15th exoneration the unit has secured since it started in January 2018.

More:Wayne County Prosecutor's Conviction Integrity Unit seen as a boon to wrongfully convicted

"We've been investigating this case the entire time the unit has been in existence," Integrity Unit director Valerie Newman told the judge Thursday. "We feel confident we've identified the perpetrator (of the two women's murder), but he died in 2004.

"It's a heartbreaking case, but that's why we started the CIU," Newman said.

Ramon Ward keeps his emotions in check as Valerie Newman (not pictured), director of the Wayne County Prosecutor's Office Conviction Integrity Unit, explains new evidence proves another deceased individual committed the murder.

Innocence advocates say Ward's exoneration calls into question other cases that relied on the testimony of the two jailhouse informants, Joe Twilley and Oliver Cowan, who were used by Detroit cops to secure dozens of murder convictions, according to court records.

There are multiple appeals from prisoners who claim they were wrongfully convicted based on the false testimony of Twilley, who absconded from probation in 2005 after being convicted of cocaine possession, according to the Michigan Department of Corrections, and Cowan, who died in 1995 weeks before Ward's trial.

At least three men who were locked up in the 9th-floor holding cells at former Detroit police headquarters at 1300 Beaubien during the 1990s signed affidavits claiming homicide cops asked them to falsely claim they'd heard murder confessions from fellow inmates.

Bill Proctor, a former police officer and Detroit television journalist, who helps exonerate wrongfully-convicted prisoners, said the misuse of jailhouse informants in Detroit was "rampant on the 9th floor."

Ramon Ward reads a prepared statement as he turns around to thank Valerie Newman (not pictured), director of the Wayne County Prosecutor's Office Conviction Integrity Unit and her staff, for exonerating him.

"It was horrific," said Proctor, director of Seeking Justice. "This was part of the police department's approach to quickly closing cases. I think it was systemic, and I think supervisors signed off on this approach, and put a vise on people's necks in order to get convictions."

Ward and his advocates say that culture led to his wrongful conviction.

On Jan. 21, 1994, the bodies of Denise Cornell and Joan Gilliam were found in an abandoned drug house on Moran Street in Detroit. About three months later, Ward was arrested. Prosecutors alleged Ward lured the women to the house to steal Gilliam's $8,000 disability check before fatally shooting them.

Ward was put in a cell at police headquarters, where Twilley and Cowan were housed. Both men were trustees, despite Cowan's status as a habitual offender with a history of absconding; and Twilley being a convicted murderer who was in Detroit police lockup while awaiting an appeal hearing. 

A memo from an assistant Wayne County prosecutor to his supervisor warned about the practice of using jailhouse snitches

(Photo: U.S. District Court document)

Ward denied involvement in the killings, but Twilley and Cowan told police he had confessed. Detroit police homicide detective Monica Childs also produced a document she claimed was Ward’s confession, but Ward refused to sign it.

Ward was charged with two counts of first-degree murder. During the preliminary examination, Twilley testified he wasn’t offered any favors in exchange for cooperating, but homicide Sgt. Dale Collins, who oversaw the Ward case, petitioned Wayne Circuit Judge John Shamo to reduce Twilley’s murder sentence from 12-25 years to time served. The petition was granted.

Collins testified that Twilley had helped him “on at least 20 homicide cases,” adding: “he has always cooperated in basically anything we wanted him to do.”

Cowan also helped Detroit police with several murder convictions, court records show. During Ward's stay in Detroit police lockup, Cowan was incarcerated on breaking and entering charges, and was facing 5-15 years in prison because he was a habitual offender. But instead, he was given one year's probation in exchange for cooperating with police, according to court documents.

Based on the testimony of Twilley and Cowan and the unsigned document police said was a confession, Ward was bound over for trial. Cowan died of AIDS 10 days before Ward’s trial, so prosecutors used the testimony he'd given during the preliminary exam. A jury found Ward guilty. 

Two weeks after the trial concluded, and eight days before sentencing, Wayne County assistant prosecutor Robert Agacinski sent a memo to the prosecutor’s chief of operations Richard Padzieski warning of the practice of relying on jailhouse snitches, because “snitches do lie about overhearing confessions and fabricate admissions in order to obtain police favors or obtain the deals promised.”

Agacinski specifically mentioned Twilley and Cowan in the Feb. 8, 1995, memo, which was not disclosed to Ward’s attorneys. Agacinski wrote that Collins and fellow homicide detective William Rice had asked him to reduce Twilley’s murder sentence. “We wouldn’t”, Agacinski wrote. “They personally went to Judge Shamo and talked with him in chambers, and then later, Judge Shamo granted (their request).”

On Feb. 16, 1995, Ward was convicted of first- and second-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.

Two weeks after Ward’s conviction, Timothy Baughman, then chief of research at the Wayne County Prosecutor's Office, sent a memo to the office’s chief of operations, Padzieski, responding to the issues raised in Agacinski’s earlier memo.

“The situation described by Agacinski, if true, could cause tremendous problems, not the least of which the police have no authority to make ‘deals’ with prisoners in exchange for them acting as ‘listening posts,’ Baughman wrote.

In 2001, Ward’s appellate attorneys submitted an affidavit signed by John Hewitt-El, who in 1994 was incarcerated on the 9th floor at 1300 Beaubien. He claimed Detroit cops tried to get him to lie about overhearing confessions to murders.

Hewitt-El claimed “that Detroit Police detectives from the Homicide Unit told him they would help him out if he agreed to testify that he had overheard conversations from people who were also locked up on the 9th floor and charged with murder ... (and) that these police detectives also told him that they would supply him with the information he would need when he had to testify.”

Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy said Ward's case "is a classic example of why the CIU exists. Mr. Ward served over half of his life in prison for crimes he did not commit."

"His case was disturbing on several levels, and our intensive investigation showed that he is certainly entitled to the relief we requested today," Worthy said. "We remain committed to thoroughly reviewing all CIU cases and will support his anticipated state claim for relief ..."

Under the state Wrongful Imprisonment Compensation Act, exonerated ex-prisoners are entitled to $50,000 for every year they served.

Ward's relatives were in the courtroom Thursday, including his sister Elise Moore, who said she was overwhelmed.

Ramon Ward's sister, Elise Moore, right, hugs a member of the prosecutor's conviction integrity unit.

"I'm just numb," she said after the hearing. "I'm tired and excited at the same time. I was a teenager when (Ward) went in. It's been tough."

Willie Ward said he doesn't remember much about his older brother. "I was 10 (when he went to prison), so it's pretty much a blur," he said. "But we have a lot to look forward to now."

Reading his statement, Ramon Ward thanked his family, "who never gave up on me." He also thanked Worthy and the Conviction Integrity Unit "for caring enough to listen to my many pleas, which fell on deaf ears for years. You believed in me when no one else would."

Two men who were recently exonerated after serving decades in prison for murders they didn't commit, Aaron Salter and Darrell Siggers, also were in the courtroom Thursday.

Both men run programs that help wrongfully-convicted ex-prisoners adjust to life on the outside, and they offered the aid to Ward.

"It's tough for these guys getting out," said Salter, director of Innocence Maintained, which provides housing, clothes and other necessities to exonerees. "You're starting from scratch, and it's hard to get stability. I came to support (Ward) and offer my help."

Siggers, director of Legal Access Plus, which aids prisoners and ex-prisoners with legal and clerical issues, expressed a similar sentiment. "I'll help him get his birth certificate, Social Security card, driver's license, things like that," he said. "He's going to have a lot of challenges; hopefully, we can make it easier for him."

Ward's attorney John Smietanka said in a written statement: "Ward will now be able to start the long process of recovering from his ... wrongful imprisonment and begin what is really his new life.

"He was sent to prison when he was 18 years old and starts life anew at 45," Smietanka said.