Wrongfully convicted man sues Detroit cop, alleging he was framed

George Hunter
The Detroit News

Detroit — A 38-year-old man who spent eight years in prison after being wrongfully convicted of cocaine possession is suing a former member of a Detroit Police narcotics crew that's under investigation for allegedly framing innocent people and accepting bribes from drug dealers. 

The federal lawsuit, filed Friday, accuses Detroit police officer Stephen Geelhood of lying in an affidavit by claiming he saw Darell Chancellor dealing drugs. Based on the officer’s statement, police got a search warrant, raided Chancellor's mother's house and found cocaine.

Chancellor was arrested and convicted in December 2012 of possession of 450 grams to 999 grams of cocaine. He was sentenced to 14 years, three months, to 30 years as a habitual fourth offender.

Darell Chancellor

Chancellor and Darrell Richmond were exonerated in March, after the Wayne County Prosecutor's Conviction Integrity Unit determined they had been wrongfully convicted in separate cases based on false affidavits filed by Detroit drug officers. 

Detroit police chief James Craig said Geelhood is also the focus of a separate internal investigation, which was launched in response to Chancellor's allegations.

The accusations made in the lawsuit against Geelhood, who is still on the police force, are tied to "Operation Clean Sweep," an ongoing internal investigation into the former Narcotics Section, which was disbanded in 2014 after multiple corruption scandals.

Police and city officials declined to discuss the specific allegations made in Chancellor's lawsuit, but after launching the investigation last year, Craig said there was evidence some drug cops were providing false affidavits to judges in order to get search warrants.

Detroit Police Officers Association president Craig Miller declined to comment because he said he was unaware of the allegations against Geelhood.

The lawsuit seeks more than $75,000 in damages.

"We opened an investigation into Geelhood in response to the lawsuit, but we’re also looking at other allegations that he may be associated with," Craig said. "I can't comment any further because the lawsuit is pending."

Chancellor's attorney Ven Johnson said he plans to file another suit next week from a second man who also says he was wrongfully convicted of a drug offense based on a false Detroit police affidavit.

"This was a pattern, where officers in the narcotics unit were lying on affidavits, and misleading magistrates and judges into signing warrants that allowed the police to go in and do what they do," Johnson said.

Police officials said the bulk of the current internal investigation focuses on Geelhood's former unit, which included convicted ex-drug cops David Hansberry, Bryan Watson and Arthur Leavells.

The three former officers are serving time in federal prison after their 2017 convictions on criminal conspiracy charges. They were caught ripping off drug dealers and stealing money and drugs that had been seized in raids.

Geelhood was not accused of wrongdoing in that case.

FBI probes into Geelhood's former crew and another convicted drug officer, Michael Mosley, led to the current Detroit police internal investigation, which began in August when officers from the department's Professional Standards bureau raided the drug unit and seized computers and records.

That investigation is ongoing, Craig said Tuesday.

Chancellor served five years in prison after pleading guilty in 2003 to armed robbery, and had four other drug convictions — but Johnson insisted his client didn't commit the offense for which he was recently incarcerated.

"There are a lot of bad things you can do to someone, but falsely putting them in prison is as bad as it gets," Johnson said.

When Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy dropped the charges against Chancellor in March, she agreed the 2012 charges against him were based on falsehoods.

"The alleged evidence in the case of Mr. Chancellor cannot be corroborated and has been credibly refuted," Worthy said in a March release. "It was based upon a fraudulent search warrant."

David Moran, director of the University of Michigan Innocence Clinic, said people with long rap sheets are more likely to be wrongfully convicted of crimes.

"I think the cases where police actually try to frame someone are rare, but if they're investigating someone with a significant criminal history, it's easier for the officers to ignore the holes in the case," Moran said. "They're more likely to think the holes really aren't that big."

Geelhood, however, is accused in the lawsuit of framing Chancellor. 

In November 2011, Geelhood filed an affidavit claiming an informant told him Chancellor was about to receive a large shipment of heroin. Geelhood further claimed in the affidavit that he watched a man matching Chancellor's description engaging in a "suspected narcotics transaction."

"That allegation was false," the 14-page lawsuit said.

Based on the affidavit, a 36th District Court magistrate signed a search warrant allowing officers to raid Chancellor's mother's house on 32nd Street on Detroit's west side. Chancellor wasn't home, but police found cocaine in the house and later arrested him.

Chancellor was charged with possession of 450 to 999 grams of cocaine, and underwent a bench trial before Wayne Circuit Judge Daniel Hathaway.

"Geelhood was the prosecution’s star witness at trial," the lawsuit said. "He testified to both the seizure of the cocaine during the raid and the events that he falsely claimed had occurred."

After Hathaway found Chancellor guilty, the judge said his verdict, "really comes down to the reliability of Officer Geelhood’s identification."

Last year, Craig said the internal probe found drug officers were lying in affidavits, raiding drug houses, and then extorting drug dealers for cash and dope, pressuring them into naming who they'd bought the drugs from — and then repeating the process with the next dealer up the chain.

After Craig launched the internal investigation, they sent some of the questionable cases to the prosecutor's Conviction Integrity Unit for further review. Chancellor's case was among them.

"I want to commend and thank Kym Worthy and Val Newman (director of the integrity unit), for looking at these cases," Johnson said. "As they look at this drug unit that was stealing and accepting bribes for years, one-by-one the people who were wrongfully convicted are getting justice.

"Unfortunately, it took my client eight years for that to happen."


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Twitter: @GeorgeHunter_DN