Second chance granted

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Diane Cooper's son left college a young man with big dreams of launching a recording company. But he never got to pursue them.

Orlando Flowers is one of seven ex-inmates from Wayne County who were released after receiving a commutation on first-degree murder charges from then-Gov. Rick Snyder.

DiCondi Cooper died in an execution-style killing at age 22. The 1998 shooting stemmed from a dispute over stereo equipment. He died in a spray of gunfire from an AK-47 after being made to crawl into the basement of the Detroit home he shared with his childhood friend, who was wounded in the attack.

"He never had a chance to grow into being a man," Diane Cooper, 76, said of her son, the second of eight children. "We don't talk about it a lot anymore because it has been so long. But that is still affecting all of us."

A 27-year-old Orlando Flowers drove the car to Cooper’s house that night, carried the gun inside and ordered the shooting, prosecutors contend. He was convicted of murder and given a life sentence.

Flowers was one of 61 criminals whose sentences were either commuted or pardoned by Rick Snyder in one of his final acts as Michigan’s governor. 

In February, Flowers walked free.

Diane Cooper of Detroit holds a photograph of her son, DeCondi, who was killed in 1998 in Detroit.

"My concern was and still is that he'll be released back into the public," said Cooper of Detroit. "I'm sure that he has said that he regrets it, but it's mostly that he regretted being caught."

Flowers, now a deacon at Third New Hope Baptist Church in Detroit, where his wife is a minister, said he thinks about the "wrong decision" that sent him to prison every day. 

He doesn't blame Cooper's family for wanting him to remain behind bars.

"I would feel the same way if somebody took my loved one," he told The Detroit News. "I would want them to stay in prison for the rest of their lives. But God is merciful, and we have to be merciful as well."

►Read our entire special report: Second chance granted

The governor’s office issued a simple list of commuted or pardoned prisoners after 5 p.m. on a Friday in December. Only their names were included, with no other identifying details, background on their convictions or any explanation as to why they were chosen.

Snyder's list included seven convicted murderers in Wayne County and five others from Oakland, Genesee, Kent and Kalamazoo counties.

The Detroit News met with several of the commuted prisoners to hear their stories after reviewing a thousand pages of transcripts about their crimes that date back to 1966, compiled by state corrections officials over several months under the Freedom of Information Act. 

They are the most recent example of the extraordinary power in the hands of Michigan governors, which for Diane Cooper made fresh old wounds, but for Flowers meant a second beginning.

“I can’t express how sad I am and how disappointed I am in myself that this transpired,” he said. “I am totally grateful to the governor for granting me an opportunity to be able to come home to my loved ones.”

Snyder released fewer prisoners than the two previous Michigan governors, but he issued less information about them than his predecessors.

In the December statement revealing the names, Snyder said he understood "the importance and impact" and "took great time and care in making my decisions."

But the statement noted "no further information will be available on these cases or the governor's decisions to grant or deny any request."

When pressed again as recently as June, Allison Scott, an assistant for Snyder, said the former Republican governor "will pass on the opportunity" to explain his decisions.

Snyder granted 35 pardons for offenses ranging from larceny to drug possession, breaking and entering, retail fraud and assault.

He also signed off on 26 commutations, including 12 convictions for first-degree murder and others for armed robbery and high-level drug cases. A commutation reduces a sentence but does not nullify the underlying conviction like a pardon.

The News requested transcripts of public hearings held for multiple offenders with first-degree murder convictions days after Snyder's decision to commute their prison terms was announced. It took state corrections officials two months to prepare them.

Gov. Rick Snyder decided to "pass on the opportunity" to explain his clemency decisions, his spokeswoman told The Detroit News.

Holly Kramer, a spokeswoman for the state corrections department, attributed the lengthy processing time to the volume of records requested and said the files "needed to be handled by a number of individuals" because of the number people involved in the commutation process.

The department of corrections provides the governor's office with a variety of materials to consider each commutation, including recommendation summaries containing background, parole placement options, prison records, health information and public hearing testimony, Kramer said. Medical status and parole eligibility reports, clemency applications and parole board recommendations are also provided for review. 

Packets of information were sent to Snyder’s office throughout 2018 as they were completed, Kramer said. 

Eric E. Sterling, executive director of the Maryland-based National Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, said there doesn't appear to be a universal practice among governors for issuing pardons and commutations. But the authority, he said, comes with a responsibility to provide some form of explanation. 

"Because it is the exercise of a very important discretionary power, a governor ought to provide sufficient information to the public to understand who and why a pardon or commutation is being granted," said Sterling, who didn't speak specifically to Snyder's case. 

"It's reasonable even when you're trying to eliminate the stigma attached and you have a concern about the privacy of the former offender going forward."

Kramer noted the Michigan Constitution gives each governor the authority to grant clemency. All are subject to "procedures and regulations spelled out in law and they must adhere to those."

According to the state Constitution, governors "shall inform the Legislature annually of each reprieve, commutation and pardon granted, stating reasons therefor."

In Snyder's case, that notification was made on Dec. 27, listing only the name of the offender and date that the pardon or commutation was granted. Each decision "was based on the affirmative recommendation of the Michigan Parole Board," it reads. 

Kramer said the public notification on commutations provided by Snyder's administration "did not have an impact on our processes at the MDOC."

"Each governor can choose how often they grant clemency, to whom and how they want to communicate that information publicly," she said. 

A parole board member, Kramer added, was unable to discuss the commutation decisions for The News' report, "since the board prefers to speak as one through its decisions, rather than through individual members."

'Governor's prerogative'

Each governor sets his or her own criteria for the cases they'll consider, said Cheri Arwood, who served as an executive administrator to the governor's legal counsel, assisting in the commutation process under Snyder and Republican Gov. John Engler. 

Under law, multiple notifications are made to presiding courts, prosecutors and victims, and public hearings are held as cases come up for consideration. The parole board oversees the process and weighs in. Governors are provided opinions and advice from legal counsel as they evaluate them.

"It's very up-front. You can't get around that," she said. "The intent of the statute is that no one feels like they're blindsided."

Arwood said Snyder "put time and understanding" into each commutation he signed but was open to considering more types of cases than Engler had, including sentences for elderly prisoners in poor health. 

"At the end of the day, it's the governor's prerogative," said Arwood, who worked for Snyder's administration for six and a half years. "Some people do not want to accept that sometimes, and you get it. It's an emotional topic for those involved."

Republican Gov. William E. Milliken granted 95 commutations, primarily for first-degree murder convictions, between 1969 to 1982. Democratic Gov. James J. Blanchard granted just six, all first-degree murder, according to records compiled for The News by state corrections officials. 

John Engler granted 34 commutations during his tenure as Michigan's governor, eight for first-degree murder.

Engler granted 34 commutations during his tenure, eight for first-degree murder, according to corrections officials.

Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm commuted 180 sentences, 40 for first-degree murderers. For Snyder, state records show 32 total commutations. 

Past notifications to the Legislature of commutations made by Granholm and Engler included names, offenses and sentencing dates and cite the "affirmative recommendation" of the parole board.

Engler said in an interview with The News that his administration was meticulous on record keeping and reporting. 

He recalls in his tenure there was attention paid to some older prisoners who "weren't thought to be much of a threat anymore" and others "on death's door."

"It's really an extraordinary power that a governor has, and you have to exercise it prudently, and we tried to do that," said Engler, noting his office crafted a detailed brief on every case it acted on. "I felt I knew a lot about every one of them because I had a pretty extensive record put in front of me. The good and the bad, it was all there."

Liz Boyd, former press secretary for Granholm, said a decision by the parole board that a prisoner was not a risk to public safety was the minimum threshold.

"Only then did the governor and her office begin an exhaustive review of a commutation application," Boyd said. "The governor considered the inmate's age, medical record, time incarcerated, institutional record and deportability; the nature and circumstances of the crime; and the extent to which the inmate accepted responsibility for the crime and made efforts to rehabilitate."

Granholm, Boyd said, also weighed the recommendation of her legal counsel, and support or opposition by the prosecutor, attorney general, sentencing judge, family, community, prison officials and the victim's family. 

"As a former federal prosecutor and attorney general, Governor Granholm gave strong consideration to any opposition, particularly from a victim or family member," Boyd said.

Metro area cases

Snyder's authority to grant clemency was derived from Section 14 of Article V of the Michigan Constitution of 1963, "which provides that the governor shall have power to grant reprieves, commutations and pardons after convictions for all offenses, except cases of impeachment."

The Michigan Parole Board had received more than 4,000 applications for pardons and commutations during Snyder's tenure. Cases with merit were sent to the governor and his legal staff for review. The parole board gave final approval. 

Cases with the first-degree murder convictions from Metro Detroit reviewed by The News:

  • Demetrius Favors, 73, fatally shot a Detroit shoe shop owner in 1966. He served more than 50 years behind bars before he was paroled in February.
  • John Harris was paroled in February after two decades in prison. At 70, Harris was convicted in Oakland County of shooting Rickey Nobles in the head at close range with a shotgun during a drunken argument in Pontiac in 1997. Harris died Feb. 25 at age 92. He was awaiting placement in a community where his medical needs could be met, officials said. He had end-stage dementia. 
  • Kenneth Smith, 47, spent nearly three decades in prison for a 1990 murder he committed at age 18. Smith fatally shot Green T. Johnson at a house in Detroit to obtain drugs and cash. Smith was paroled in March. 
  • Larry Smith, 65, served more than 40 years in the August 1975 slaying of Maurice Knight. Smith and two friends took part in the targeted killing of Knight in Detroit. Smith was released in March.
  • Melissa Chapman, 50, spent 31 years in prison for her role in the 1987 killing of Michael Gaines in Genesee County. Gaines had been shot and his body was set on fire. Chapman was released in March.
  • Orlando Flowers, 49, was released in February after serving about 12 years of a life sentence in connection with the January 1998 execution-style slaying of DiCondi Cooper in Detroit. Although he didn't pull the trigger, prosecutors painted Flowers as the mastermind in the crime. 
  • Donald Harris, 62, spent more than 42 years behind bars in the May 1975 shooting death of Detroit shop owner John Anthony. Harris shot Anthony in front of his young daughter in a hastily planned robbery attempt. He was released in March. 
  • Darryl Woods, 47, left prison in February after serving nearly three decades for his role in a drug transaction that led to the 1990 death of Anthony Capers. 
  • Abner Hines, 65, was sentenced in 1975 out of Wayne County to life terms for first-degree murder as an accessory in the killing of business owner Leonard McNeal. He'd served 45 years. 

Kramer confirmed in an email last week that none of the offenders with first-degree murder convictions have violated parole since being released.

Each remains on parole for four years. None can leave the state without permission, possess a firearm or associate with known felons, according to the corrections department.

'That act will haunt you'

The Wayne County Prosecutor's Office found only a single case with relatives on record with the state for the commuted first-degree murder cases it prosecuted. That was also true of Wayne County commutation hearing transcripts reviewed by The News. 

Melissa Chapman spent more than three decades behind bars for her role in the 1987 killing of Michael Gaines.

“None of the seven Wayne County defendants are asserting that they are innocent. We filed letters with our position in each of the cases and standby the letters today," Prosecutor Kym L. Worthy said in a statement to The News. "We opposed the commutation, and we do not know why the decision was made to commute the sentences of these particular defendants.”

The News recently sat down with some of the former inmates to discuss the crimes that landed them behind bars for life and future plans as they reintegrate into society. 

Donald Harris served more than 42 years behind bars for shooting the owner of a corner store in a hold-up he orchestrated as a teenager, telling The News "I often think about my victim." 

Meanwhile, Chapman talked with The News after spending more than three decades behind bars for her role in the 1987 killing of Michael Gaines. 

Gaines had been shot twice in the head by Chapman's abusive boyfriend, Robert Goodyear. The pair dumped Gaines' body in a field in Genesee County and later set it on fire. 

Chapman said she regrets the decisions that she made as a teenager and feels fortunate to have a second chance. 

"No one wants this to haunt the rest of our lives," she said. "If we just take the time to look beyond the label and the stigma, there's people who really want to do something good with their life and give back to their communities."

But the families of the victims remain unsettled by Snyder's commutations and the manner in which they were done.

"Why would the governor let a murderer out? Somebody that has been convicted of killing another," said DiCondi Cooper's sister, Dequese Cooper, 51, who resides in Georgia.

"He took a life."