Court cites Detroit detective's false confessions in upholding decision for new trial

George Hunter
The Detroit News

Detroit — The Michigan Court of Appeals has upheld a Wayne County judge's decision to grant a new trial to a 62-year-old man who spent seven years in prison, ruling that the case's lead investigator exhibited a pattern of lying and coercing false confessions.

In an eight-page unpublished decision Thursday, the appellate court unanimously upheld Wayne Circuit Court Shannon Walker's February ruling that granted a new trial to Mark Craighead, who was convicted in 2002 of manslaughter. Craighead was paroled in 2009, but has continued fighting to clear his name and criminal record.

Mark Craighead, foreground, works with his Detroit nonprofit, Safe Place Transition Center

The three-judge appellate judges agreed with Walker's opinion that former Detroit police homicide investigator Barbara Simon employed "interrogation tactics (which) demonstrated a scheme, plan, or system to obtain false confessions."

Simon, who has not responded to multiple requests for comment, was a homicide detective for more than a decade before she retired in 2011 and was hired as an investigator by then-Attorney General Mike Cox. Simon retired from the Attorney General's Office in August, officials said.

At least four ex-prisoners have been exonerated after judges found evidence and confessions obtained by Simon to be tainted. The appellate judges said that weighed into their decision.

"I feel blessed," Craighead said Saturday. "My main priority now is to get my father's name back — Craighead."

Mark Craighead

Assistant Wayne County prosecutor Maria Miller said in an email: "The case is being reviewed to determine if we will appeal.”

Because the Appeals Court decision was unpublished, it cannot be cited as legal precedent, although the court's findings about Simon may be brought up in future court proceedings.

Megan Richardson, Craighead's attorney at the University of Michigan Innocence Clinic, said she expects more people whose cases involved Simon to file motions for new trials.

"Barbara Simon's pattern of coercing confessions can now be used as impeachment evidence against her," she said. "There's a probability that juries will hear that this police officer has a history of eliciting false statements. That would call into question her credibility in cases where she took the witness stand."

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

Police interviewed more than 20 people, including Craighead. The case sat dormant for three years before Craighead was arrested. Simon produced a confession signed by Craighead, but he claims she told him he was signing an understanding of his rights.

Craighead insisted at trial his confession had been coerced and 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 store's sprinkler system had malfunctioned, destroying the time cards. Craighead was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 40 months to 15 years in prison.

In 2009, the Michigan Innocence Clinic discovered phone records that showed 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 from the store.

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.

Because evidence that was previously rejected by judges is not allowed to be reintroduced in court, the Innocence Clinic focused its second request for a new trial last year on the problems found with other cases Simon investigated.

The Innocence Clinic presented as new evidence affidavits from the exonerated ex-prisoners who were released after problems were found with Simon's investigations. 

In granting the new trial request in February, Walker wrote: "This new evidence establishes a common scheme of misconduct. This impeachment evidence demonstrates that Simon has repeatedly lied as part of her misconduct, which would allow a jury to evaluate whether to trust her testimony."

The appeals court said Thursday it agreed with Walker. "The newly discovered evidence concerning Investigator Simon’s history of lying undermines her credibility as a witness," the judges wrote.

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. They claim she coerced a teenager into naming them as the shooters.

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 false statement in which Monson confessed that he'd killed the victim with a knife; it hadn't yet been determined that the murder weapon was the toilet lid.

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

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

Johnson, who along with Scott was wrongfully imprisoned for nearly 20 years, said Saturday he was "glad that people are finally starting to see what Barbara Simon did to so many people."

Johnson and Scott were convicted of murdering 35-year-old Lisa Kindred on Mother's Day in 1999. The case drew heavy media attention, which Johnson said played a part in his wrongful conviction.

"She told me, 'I don't care if you're innocent,'" he said. "She said the mayor was coming down on her boss, and her boss was coming down on her, and she didn't care if I had an alibi. She said, 'nobody's going to believe you.'

"I'm just so happy that it's finally being recognized what Barbara Simon has done," said Johnson, who is suing Simon and former homicide detective Sgt. Catherine Adams for $100 million in federal court.

Attorney Wolfgang Mueller, who represents Johnson in the lawsuit, said, "it's not a coincidence that there are several exonerations linked to false confessions and Detective Simon ... as the court said, this is evidence of a common scheme or plan."

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Twitter: @GeorgeHunter_DN