Wrongfully convicted Michigan man freed after 38 years
Jackson – A man who was sentenced to life without parole in an arson fatality has been freed after 38 years in a Michigan prison after a woman admitted that she lied under oath during his 1983 trial.
Walter Forbes, 63, walked out of Kinross Correctional Facility on Nov. 20 after Jackson County Circuit Court Judge Thomas Wilson overturned his arson and murder convictions earlier that month.
Annice Kennebrew was the only witness to implicate Forbes in the July 1982 fire at an apartment building in Jackson, Michigan. Dennis Hall was killed in the blaze. Kennebrew, who was 19 at the time, testified that she saw Forbes and two other men set the fire.
But she admitted during a May 14 evidentiary hearing that she lied about what she saw because two men threatened her, her two young children and other relatives, court records show.
Kennebrew’s false testimony contradicted other evidence in the case. She claimed she saw gasoline being poured outside the apartment building, but no accelerants were found at the scene.
Charges were dropped against one of the men who Kennebrew identified in the fire, and the other was acquitted, said Imran J. Syed, a director of the Michigan Innocence Clinic and a lawyer for Forbes.
Suspicion fell on Forbes, of Jackson, because a month before the fire he stepped in to stop a fight involving Hall, then Hall shot Forbes the next day in a parking lot. Forbes testified against Hall following his release from a hospital, court records show.
Forbes carefully researched his case in prison, filed open-records requests, and continued to proclaim his innocence. He then reached out to the Michigan Innocence Clinic for help, Syed said.
Forbes said he was initially angry at the system but that he decided he had to focus on making his case for freedom.
“Anger would have affected me more than anyone else,” he told The New York Times. “Being angry with everyone that had a hand in this wouldn’t allow me to see with clarity what had to be done.”
Students at the Michigan Innocence Clinic, which is part of the University of Michigan’s Law School, started searching for Kennebrew in 2012, Syed said. She eventually agreed to come forward and admit to lying under oath.
After the fire that killed Hall, investigators received a tip that the building’s owner paid someone to burn the place down in an insurance-fraud scheme. Students with the clinic found court documents that showed the same owner was convicted years later in an insurance scheme involving arson at a building in nearby Livingston County in which another man died. The building owner is now believed to be deceased, Syed said.
Evidentiary hearings were held virtually in May and June before Forbes’ convictions were overturned in November.
“This is not a difficult case,” Syed said. “This is not a case that should have taken 38 years. I have the sense of who could have done what to save Walter some years of his life. That’s something I’ll continue to think about. I hope that’s something the prosecutor, the judge will think about.”
Forbes is now adjusting to life in a world much different than when he was last a free man.
Syed said Forbes is expected to receive nearly $2 million for his incarceration. In Michigan, people who were wrongfully imprisoned are entitled to $50,000 for each year of their imprisonment, but it could take several months before he receives it, Syed said.