Advocates seek release of Michigan prisoner they say is innocent and has COVID-19

Supporters of a Michigan prisoner who has been fighting for release for years say he is stricken with COVID-19 and are seeking his release.

Lawyers for the Innocence Clinic at Michigan Law are asking Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to free Temujin Kensu, who changed his name from Frederick Freeman after converting to Buddhism. They are seeking clemency not only on compassionate grounds during the pandemic but because they say he is innocent of the crime he was convicted of. Kensu has been imprisoned for 33 years of a life sentence for murder.

Temujin Kensu

Kensu, 57, said he has the respiratory disease tied to the coronavirus, and other chronic health problems while housed at a prison in Macomb County, clinic attorney Imran Syed said.

"The horrible fate of possibly dying in prison of a disease that could be properly treated outside of prison is not one that any inmate should have to suffer," said a May 24 letter to Whitmer from Syed and the UM Law School Innocence Clinic.

"... To have an inmate suffer this fate while being entirely innocent is an unforgivable offense against our constitutional system of justice."Mr Freeman's significant health issues are especially poignant in light of his positive test for COVID-19. Unable to obtain adequate medical care in prison, Mr. Freeman suffers from a number of ailments, including a brain tumor and autoimmune, heart and lung problems." 

The Michigan Department of Corrections spokesman Chris Gautz said Tuesday the results of the virus testing had not come back, and that patient privacy laws prevent him from releasing results. 

Gautz said Kensu had received the results of an antibody test, which determines if a person has been infected in the past with the disease on May 20. Gautz did not comment on the results.

"Due to (HIPPA), I cannot share the results," said Gautz in an email to The Detroit News. "We are awaiting the results of his swab test, which is the one that tells whether the person currently has the virus. The antibody test tells whether you previously had it weeks or months ago."

Kensu and supporters have been trying obtain his release, convinced that he was wrongfully convicted of the murder in 1986 in Port Huron of Scott Macklem, the son of a prominent St. Clair County politician.  

Supporters from the Royal Oak-based Proving Innocence project, which also is helping to try and free Kensu, said around the time of Macklem's murder, nine witnesses placed Kensu in Upper Michigan's Escanaba area, about 450 miles from the crime scene.

The prosecutor suggested that Kensu could have committed the murder and then dashed back to Escanaba by private plane in a few hours.

No murder weapon was produced and no gunshot residue was found on Kensu's clothing. An ammunition box found at the murder scene contained a fingerprint that did not belong to Kensu, supporters from project say.

“I was the perfect patsy. A drifter, loser nobody,” Kensu told The News last year.

David Sanders, vice president of Proving Innocence, said Tuesday that if he isn't released, "a wholly innocent man has a very real chance of dying in prison for a crime for which he never should have been convicted."

"Literally scores of our citizens have pleaded on Temujin’s behalf to the governor that he be freed promptly due to his actual innocence and his health issues," he said.

Kensu, according to supporters, was informed by prison staffers in writing May 19 that he tested positive for COVID-19.

“My lungs are jacked. My head is pounding all the time. It's very painful to breathe, my ears are ringing as though I have been hit with a hammer, my visions blurred, and my body aches like I've been beaten," according to a news release from Sanders with comments from Kensu. "I am coughing all the time, sometimes in long fits until I throw up." 

Kensu warned during a March 27 interview on Michigan Public Radio that he would be infected with the potentially deadly coronavirus due to a what he called a lack of effective protocols behind prison walls, supporters said.

On Friday, MDOC officials announced that every prison in the state had been tested for COVID-19.

The final results are expected this week. So far, out of 38,130 prisoners who were tested at the state's 29 prisons, 3,263 prisoners have tested positive and 18,316 have tested negative, prison officials reported. Some 16,551 test results are pending.

“I’d like to think it’s never too late for a humanitarian act and justice, said Sanders.  “But it’s now beginning to look that way. The governor needs to act soon to finally release Kensu to his family and friends where he can get decent health care and live whatever time he has left as a free man. How can we live with ourselves if we let an innocent man die a lonely death in prison when we could have prevented that.”