Bernard Howard smiled. After 26 years, he was free from a crime he didn't commit

George Hunter
The Detroit News

Detroit — Bernard Howard smiled when his decades-long quest for freedom officially ended Thursday with a victory in virtual court.

Howard, who spent 26 years in prison for a 1994 triple homicide he didn't commit, was exonerated during a livestreamed hearing in which Wayne Circuit Judge Miriam Bazzi formally dismissed his case with prejudice, meaning he can't be charged with the crime again.

Bernard Howard and attorney Beth Morrow smile as murder charges are formally dropped against him

The 44-year-old Detroit native is the 25th wrongfully-convicted inmate to be exonerated by the Wayne County Conviction Integrity Unit since it started work in January 2018. This year, the unit has secured exonerations for Howard and at least two other defendants whose convictions were based on the testimony of "jailhouse snitches."

Howard, who was 18 when he was convicted, was released from the Thumb Correctional Facility last month, but Thursday's formal dropping of the charges means he can now move forward with his life — and start working toward receiving compensation for the years he lost. 

Under state law, Howard is eligible to receive $50,000 for every year he served in prison, and his attorney Wolfgang Mueller says Bazzi's ruling clears the way to file a federal civil rights violation lawsuit, which is expected next week.

For the immediate future, though, Howard said he just wants to relax.

Thursday's livestreamed court hearing, in which Bernard Howard was exonerated after serving 26 years in prison for a murder he didn't commit

"Right now, I'm just going to chill with my grandkids," Howard said during a telephone interview a few minutes after Thursday's court hearing. 

Assistant prosecutor Valerie Newman, head of the office's integrity unit, said during the hearing that Detroit homicide detectives coerced Howard into confessing to the murders of Marcus Averitte, ReShay Winston and John Thornton. 

"There was no evidence against him," Newman said. "Nothing in this case indicates anything Mr. Howard told police (during the confession) was accurate."

Howard's appellate attorney Beth Morrow said: "Today is a great day for truth and justice. The truth is, he’s always been innocent ... today, his innocence is now being recognized by a court of justice. We cannot calculate the loss to him during the 26 years he's been incarcerated. He went in at age 18, and we cannot attach a value to that."

On July 16, 1994, Averitte, Winston and Thornton were fatally shot multiple times. Police say they also were robbed of cash and marijuana.

Detroit police arrested Kenneth McMullen and Ledon Salisbury in connection with the killings. The two were put in a holding cell at the former Detroit Police Headquarters at 1300 Beaubien, where, according to Howard's attorneys, they met inmate Joe Twilley.

Twilley claimed McMullen and Salisbury told him that Howard had helped them commit the murders. Howard was arrested and put in a 9th-floor cell with Twilley, who later testified that Howard had told him he'd helped commit the three homicides.

It wasn't the first or last time Twilley would claim a fellow inmate had confessed to a crime. There are multiple appeals from prisoners who say they also 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.

In February, Ramon Ward was exonerated after serving 25 years for the Jan. 21, 1994, killing of Denise Cornell and Joan Gilliam in an abandoned Detroit drug house. During Ward's preliminary examination, homicide Sgt. Dale Collins testified that Twilley, whose testimony helped convict Ward, also had assisted him “on at least 20 homicide cases,” adding: “he has always cooperated in basically anything we wanted him to do.”

Mueller said Twilley was responsible for multiple wrongful convictions during the 1990s, when the problems at DPD became so rampant, former mayor Dennis Archer requested a U.S. Department of Justice investigation that culminated in 13 years of federal oversight of the police department.

"It was an unethical culture in DPD, where the ends justified the means," Mueller said. "They'd give these jailhouse snitches favors — meals from outside restaurants, and there's even talk that they'd bring them to the 5th floor at 1300 Beaubien and let them have sex with their girlfriends.

"It's outrageous that one person, Joe Twilley, is responsible for over 20 people being convicted," Mueller said. "It's like this guy is Oprah Winfrey — everyone wants to open up to him and confess everything."

Howard said he'd like to see the testimony of jailhouse snitches more closely scrutinized.

"They need to give these snitches lie detector tests before they put them on the stand," he said. "Those guys will do anything to get a deal."

Howard said it was difficult serving time for a crime he didn't commit, but said knowledge of his own innocence kept him afloat.

"You have to hang your hat on the fact that you didn't do it, no matter how hard it gets, because that's the only thing you've got in there," he said. "You can't give that up, no matter what."

Morrow, who represented Howard during his appeal, said her client would still be in prison if not for the Conviction Integrity Unit.

"Without their work on this case, justice would not have been done today," she said. Morrow also thanked Colorado resident and innocence advocate Claudia Whitman, head of the National Capital Crime Assistance Network, which helped with Howard's case.

"She's supported Bernard throughout all this, emotionally and financially," Morrow said. "This is the seventh (wrongful conviction) case of hers that's led to release; six of those are in Michigan."

During Thursday's hearing, Bazzi told Howard she couldn't imagine his pain.

"You did not get to experience what it was like to be a young adult in your 20s and 30s, learning what the world has to offer," she said. "You lost opportunities to build connections, a career, to build a family. I cannot begin to comprehend the great effect this has had on you and your loved ones; the anger and sorrow you must've felt.

"But I can say that a great wrong is going to be righted today," the judge said. "It's inadequate to what you deserve, but it's a huge start for you and your family."

Bazzi also praised the Wayne County Prosecutor's Office. 

"Seldom do we see fine prosecutors who are willing to come forward and correct mistakes," she said. "Prosecutor Kym Worthy, assistant prosecutor Newman: You helped save a life today." 

Bazzi then told the defendant: "Mr. Howard, you understand more than anyone how precious your time is. I hope you find peace. I hope you find solace, and I hope you find comfort in the fact that the label of murderer is gone and replaced with 'exonerated.' I wish you nothing but the very best."

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Twitter: @GeorgeHunter_DN