Detroit native exonerated at age 63, citing former detective's false confessions

Hannah Mackay
The Detroit News

Mark Craighead was exonerated of a 20-year-old manslaughter conviction Friday after the Wayne County Prosecutor's Office decided against retrying the 63-year-old Detroit resident.

In a virtual hearing before Wayne County Circuit Judge Shannon Walker, Prosecutor Kym Worthy's office dropped the case after exhausting its appeals of Walker's February 2021 order of a new trial for Craighead. 

Higher courts upheld the judge's ruling that former Detroit police homicide investigator Barbara Simon employed "interrogation tactics (which) demonstrated a scheme, plan, or system to obtain false confessions," including one from Craighead. The case was dismissed Friday.

Mark Craighead, 63, of Detroit said Friday he was happy to be exonerated of a 20-year-old manslaughter conviction. He participated in the virtual hearing from the campus of the University of Michigan, the location of the Innocence Clinic that helped get his name cleared.

Craighead was paroled for two years in 2009 after seven and a half years in prison, but has since been fighting to clear his name with the help of the University of Michigan's Innocence Clinic.

"I think the process took too long ... but I feel like justice was finally preserved because at the end of the tunnel, I'm finally seeing the light," Craighead said. "The court system is finally seeing the light and granted a dismissal."

He later added: "That's what this verdict means to me, that I can finally enjoy my life like it was before I got incarcerated."

The prosecutor's office wouldn't concede Craighead's innocence as it dropped the case.

"The homicide occurred 25 years ago and Mr. Craighead served his sentence in the case," Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Maria Miller told The Detroit News in an email. "The decision not to re-try the case does not reflect the merits of the case. It is based upon the age of the case, and the ruling of the court that makes it impractical to re-try."

How the case developed

In July 1997. Craighead's friend Chole Pruett was found dead in his Detroit apartment having been shot four times in the abdomen. Craighead had gotten dinner with Pruett that evening and was the last known person to have seen him alive, said his attorney Dave Moran, a UM law professor who works with the Innocence Clinic. 

Craighead claimed he was working at a Sam's Club in Farmington Hills the night of Pruett's death, but he wasn't able to substantiate it. He was convicted of voluntary manslaughter in 2002 after Simon allegedly coerced him into signing a false confession. 

"The statement was written by Barbara Simon, not by Mark," Moran said. "That was the only evidence of any kind against Mark, was the statement."

In 2009, the UM's Innocence Clinic took on Craighead as a client and found phone records of calls Craighead made from the Sam's Club break room at the time of the killing. In 2010, Wayne County Circuit Judge Vera Massey Jones denied a motion for relief from judgment, citing the newly found evidence and claims that Craighead's previous counsel was ineffective.

"We should have been successful 12 years ago because we presented really incontrovertible evidence that Mark Craighead was completely innocent and in fact was working in Farmington Hills the night that his friend Chole Pruett was killed in Detroit," Moran said.

At the time, Jones ruled she did not have confidence in the evidence Craighead presented. 

New evidence of misconduct

Since Jones' ruling, at least four other former prisoners whose cases involved Simon have been exonerated after judges found she had a history of falsifying confessions and lying under oath. Craighead's lawyers from the Innocence Clinic filed for a new trial in 2020, citing these exonerations and affidavits from other former prisoners about Simon's coercion tactics.

"We came back years later with evidence that the detective who tricked Mark into signing a statement that implicated himself had been completely discredited," Moran said. "There's no way a jury would credit the testimony of Detective Barbara Simon, given that she's done the same thing in numerous other cases and falsely convicted numerous other people."

Lamarr Monson was convicted of murder in 1997 after he signed a statement that Simon allegedly wrote, confessing that he killed the victim with a knife. It was later determined that the murder weapon was a toilet lid. After the Innocence Clinic proved Monson's fingerprints were not on the lid, he was exonerated in 2017.

Justly Johnson and Kendrick Scott were also wrongfully convicted of murder in 1999 and imprisoned until they were exonerated in 2018. Simon was involved in their cases and both are suing her and claim she coerced a teenager into naming them as shooters. 

"To find out that she (Simon) did many more the same way was expected because, if she did it to me like that she probably did it to everybody," Craighead said. "So I'm finally glad that that came to the light."

Simon retired as a homicide detective in 2011 and worked for the Michigan Attorney General's office until 2021. Simon in the past has not responded to multiple requests for comment.

Mark Craighead sits with his attorney David Moran, who works with the University of Michigan Innocence Clinic that found new evidence showing Craighead was working in Farmington Hills on the night of the killing of his friend in Detroit.

In light of the new evidence, Walker ordered a new trial for Craighead last year after finding that Simon had "repeatedly lied" in other cases, tainting the evidence against Craighead. 

The Wayne County Prosecutor's Office appealed Walker's decision but it was upheld later that year. The Michigan Court of Appeals agreed that Simon's history of lying undermined her credibility as a witness. In April, the Michigan Supreme Court denied the Wayne County prosecutor's appeal of the Court of Appeals' decision. 

Looking to the future

While fighting to clear his name for the last 13 years, Craighead has started the Safe Place Transition Center, a Detroit-based nonprofit that helps veterans re-integrate into society. Now that his name is cleared, he said he wants to take his father on a nice vacation, continue running his business and spend more time with his family. 

"My dad is 89 with dementia, so he couldn't really enjoy this victory with me, but he fought tooth and nail, didn't leave any stone unturned to make sure that I was exonerated," Craighead said.

Wolfgang Mueller, Craighead's civil attorney, said they would be seeking compensation under Michigan's wrongful imprisonment compensation law. They could be seeking up to $375,000 based on his seven and half years of incarceration.

"We think that the Police Department is responsible for his conviction, and we'll look at exploring that avenue down the road," Mueller said. 

Mueller, who is representing several recently exonerated people in civil cases against Simon, said a systematic review of Simon's cases by Detroit police chief James White would be prudent. 

"Where there's smoke, there's fire, and there's a lot of smoke here with at least four people who are suing her under similar circumstances," he said.

Craighead agreed and said he was happy Simon's practices were being brought to light because there are a lot of innocent people in prison.