Court filing accuses former Detroit cop of coercing confessions

George Hunter
The Detroit News

Detroit — Attorneys for a man who spent seven years in prison for a killing he says he didn't commit have filed a motion for a new trial that contends the jury wouldn't have convicted him if they'd known about a former Detroit police detective's "penchant for misconduct."

The former detective, Barbara Simon, who now works as an investigator for the Michigan Attorney General's Office, is accused in multiple civil lawsuits of coercing false confessions and witness statements.

Mark Craighead, 60, is making a similar claim, alleging Simon coerced his confession about the 1997 shooting death of his friend, Chole Pruett. Craighead was convicted of manslaughter in 2002 and paroled in 2009.

Mark Craighead (foreground) working with his Detroit nonprofit, Safe Place Transition Center

"I need to clear my name," said Craighead, director of the Safe Place Transition Center, a Detroit nonprofit that helps recently released ex-prisoners and veterans find housing and other necessities. "My name is tarnished. This doesn't just affect me; it affects my family. I've got kids who need to know I'm innocent — really innocent."

The motion filed Monday in Wayne Circuit Court by the University of Michigan Innocence Clinic argues Craighead's conviction should be thrown out, and that he should be granted a new trial, "based on newly discovered evidence impeaching Investigator Barbara Simon."

The nine-page motion for relief from judgment said the new evidence "consists of numerous affidavits and depositions demonstrating that Investigator Simon repeatedly committed police misconduct, in particular when obtaining confessions and witness statements in a manner closely resembling Mr. Craighead's claims at trial."

Attorney General spokesman Ryan Jarvi said in an email: "The allegations don’t relate to (Simon's) time or work at our office so we have no comment."

John Roach, spokesman for Detroit's Law Department, which is representing Simon in the lawsuits, did not immediately return a request for comment Monday.

In one of the lawsuits filed in federal court, the city was ordered to pay $20,000 in 2011 after a defendant said Simon and other Detroit homicide detectives coerced him into confessing for a murder he didn't commit. At least three other lawsuits making similar claims about Simon are pending.

On July 27, 1997, Redford Township police responded to a call about a burning truck that was registered to Pruett. Later that day, Pruett's body was found in his apartment on E. Vernor in Detroit. He had been shot four times in the abdomen.

Police interviewed more than 20 people, including Craighead. Three years after the killing, he was arrested.

Simon produced a confession signed by Craighead, but he claims Simon told him he was signing an understanding of his rights.

Craighead claimed at trial he couldn't have committed the killing because he was working the midnight shift at a Farmington Hills Sam's Club store. That couldn't be verified because the time cards were destroyed when a sprinkler system malfunctioned. The jury didn't believe his alibi, and he was convicted of manslaughter.

In 2009, the Michigan Innocence Clinic discovered phone records that show Craighead had made several phone calls from the Sam's Club break room on the night of the killing.

One of the calls was made to one of Craighead's friends at the same time Pruett’s truck was set on fire in Redford Township. Records show Craighead also phoned his brother twice.

The Innocence Clinic filed a Motion for Relief from Judgment after discovering the new phone records from Sam’s Club, but the appeal was denied by Wayne Circuit Judge Vera Massey Jones.

Innocence Clinic director David Moran said the most recent motion attacks the case from a different angle.

"You can't file 6,500 motions making the same claim, so this second motion focuses on Barbara Simon," Moran said. "We know she was involved in a number of wrongful convictions where it's been established that false confessions were presented, or witnesses were coerced. If the jurors had known that, Mark Craighead would not have been found guilty."

Exonerated ex-prisoners Justly Johnson and Kendrick Scott, who were wrongfully convicted of killing a woman in front of her children in 1999 before both men were exonerated in 2018, are among those suing Simon.

In that case, Simon is accused of "forcefully interrogating a teenage witness for six hours, threatening to frame that witness, and physically abusing him," according to Craighead's motion filed last week.

Lamarr Monson, who was exonerated in 2017 after the Innocence Clinic proved his fingerprints were not on the murder weapon — a toilet bowl lid — also has a pending lawsuit against Simon. She is accused in the suit of "(writing) a statement omitting Monson’s alibi and falsely stating that he had had sex with the victim and killed her with a knife," according to Craighead's motion.

In 2011, Damon Nathaniel sued Simon after she claimed he'd confessed to a murder, following an eight-hour interrogation. Nathaniel was charged with the murder and was in jail for about 8 months before DNA evidence proved he wasn't the killer.

A federal court awarded Nathaniel a $20,000 judgment in the suit.

Craighead said the time he spent in prison was "torture."

"Nobody believes you when you say you're innocent," he said. "It's a common theme that everyone in there says they're innocent.

"There's a lot I'd like to say to Barbara Simon. I don't know how she could ruin people's lives like she did and still sleep at night."