'Wrongfully convicted heroes' honored Sunday in Detroit after serving from 8-48 years

Hani Barghouthi
The Detroit News

Detroit — Congregants of a young community church near Oak Park joined their faith leaders, a city politician, criminal justice advocates and a boxing world champion on a brisk Sunday morning to honor four formerly incarcerated men and welcome them back into their communities.

Honorees Gregory Berry, left, Juwan Deering, Raymond Gray and Chamar Avery hold their Spirit of Detroit awards at the service at United Kingdom Church on Sunday. Standing with them are past honorees and those who are celebrating the men's release from prison.

Though renewed COVID-19 concerns deprived the nondenominational United Kingdom Church of its choir during Sunday services, congregants filled the church with a roaring rendition of “O Come, All Ye Faithful” before speakers praised and prayed for Chamar Avery, Gregory Berry, Raymond Gray and Juwan Deering.

Described by the church as “wrongfully convicted heroes,” the four were released from prison after serving between eight and 48 years for crimes of which they were later exonerated, had their convictions vacated, their charges dismissed or given plea deals that led to their release.

Alongside ministers with the church and attorneys who represented some of the honorees, Detroit-boxer Thomas “the Hitman” Hearns and City Councilman Roy McCalister Jr. lent their voices to support the four men as well as criminal justice reform that advocates say will lead to more exonerations and wrongful convictions becoming exposed.

Juwan Deering stands and applauds after his daughter and grandson are introduced at the service Sunday in Detroit celebrating the release this year of four men, including him, from prison through efforts of the Conviction Integrity Unit.

McCalister also presented the men with Spirit of Detroit awards that were signed by City Council members to acknowledge their plight and commend their perseverance.

“I know from personal experience what it’s like to have a loved one incarcerated,” said Maxine Willis, who co-founded the Ambassadors Group within the church to help exonerated individuals, some of whom have spent decades in prisons, reestablish a place for themselves in society.

“(I was) witnessing firsthand the devastation of what it’s like for children who are facing a parent who’s been incarcerated.”

After meeting wrongfully convicted men in recent years and learning of their struggles with readjusting to life outside of the prison system, Willis said she and the church, which was founded in 2018, were unable to find resources to help them and so decided to fill the gap.

“I had no idea what to do,” said Pastor Terrence Devezin of an encounter he had with a man who came to him for help years prior, before the group was established.

The man had been exonerated and released from prison, only to find himself without a home and forced to sneak into his mother’s senior living facility every night for shelter. The pastor, who drives trucks for a living, made calls to people he knew in the community while on the road, and said that within hours nine people had offered their help.

When two other men came to him for support, the group came into existence and has since helped dozens of individuals with financial, logistic, spiritual and psychological needs.

Barbara Gray, wife of Raymond Gray, reacts as her husband's name is read and he receives the Spirit of Detroit award at the service at United Kingdom Church. In May, Gray was released from prison after 48 years.

“Our criminal justice system really represents us as a society,” said Casey Landis, an attorney in Detroit who is representing Gray, one of the men who was released from prison this year after serving 48 years. “And when it makes a mistake, it is us, the society, that's really making the mistake.”

The release of wrongfully convicted people from prisons through the establishment of integrity units that examine and reevaluate how investigations in prosecutor offices across the country signals a “new United States of America,” according to Bill Proctor, a former investigative journalist turned private investigator and criminal justice advocate.

“I say that because all of a sudden, in the last 10 years or so, they’ve recognized the fact that there are innocent people in their prison system. … There are people in this audience who are free based on the existence of the Conviction Integrity Unit in Wayne County,” said Proctor. “It is difficult to fathom how far behind they are in releasing more than some people from Michigan's prison system.”

“We have clouds in the sky, but we know the sun is still shining and blazing on us,” said Proctor. "And we will celebrate every day the freedom for men and women who find themselves finally released and back in the hands of loved ones and families and communities.”