Oakland prosecutor seeks probe of conviction in arson that killed 5
Saying she's "gravely concerned" about possible ethical breaches in the case of a man convicted in a 2000 arson fire that killed five children in Royal Oak Township, Oakland County Prosecutor Karen McDonald said Friday she is seeking a special prosecutor to investigate.
In a news release, McDonald said Oakland County Executive David Coulter has authorized payment for the investigation, which will look into the prosecution of Juwan Knumar Deering, who was convicted in 2006 of one count of arson and five counts of first-degree murder. Deering, 50, is serving a life prison sentence.
The former Oakland County assistant prosecutor who handled the case, Greg Townsend, is an assistant state attorney general. Lynsey Mukomel, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Dana Nessel, said Friday the department is reviewing his cases.
“We were advised of concerns raised by Oakland County Prosecutor Karen McDonald regarding a case and have taken appropriate steps in response," Mukomel said. "As a result, Assistant Attorney General Greg Townsend was reassigned from his docket while the Department of Attorney General performs a comprehensive audit of his work.”
Townsend, who could not be immediately reached for comment Friday, has been one of the lead assistant attorneys in the alleged kidnapping and death threat plots against Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.
The Attorney General's office had no further comment, including about how his reassignment might affect his role in the Whitmer cases.
Killed in the April 6, 2000, fire on Pasadena Street were Taleigha Dean, 10; Craig Dean, 8; Aaron Dean, 7; Eugene Dean, 5; and an 11-year-old friend, Michelle Frame.
McDonald said she reviewed the case at the request of the Michigan Innocence Clinic, which raised questions about evidence and the credibility of three jailhouse informants who weren't disclosed to Deering’s defense attorney or the jury in his trial.
The informants “were all found to have had cases dismissed, charges dismissed or sentences reduced based on their cooperation with the prosecution,” McDonald said. Those findings, including potential breaches of prosecutorial ethics by a former assistant prosecutor on the case, potentially impacted Deering’s constitutional right to a fair trial," she said.
“As prosecutors, we have an ethical duty to disclose information that bears on the guilt or innocence of the accused,” McDonald said. “We also have a duty to disclose to juries what, if anything, an informant was given in consideration for their testimony.
"Based on the evidence I reviewed, I am gravely concerned that this was not done in the case against Juwan Deering. Fairness and transparency are paramount. We must always do the right thing even if it exposes our own office, even when it’s not easy. If evidence exists that calls into question the credibility of a witness, we are ethically obligated to disclose it. I am committed to doing that in this case and in every case.”
Deering could potentially seek to vacate the conviction and request a new trial.
McDonald said she has provided the Michigan Innocence Clinic with newly-discovered materials concerning the case, including internal memos and notes from the assistant prosecutor who handled the case.
McDonald said she has instituted mandatory ethics training for all her assistant prosecutors.
In a statement, Oakland County Undersheriff Michael McCabe said because of the questions being raised about Deering's prosecution, "in an abundance of caution, we have opened an investigation to re-examine our role in this case."
"One thing that should be immediately cleared up however, is the mistaken assertion that the investigation relied on 'junk science,' McCabe said. "The conviction was affirmed on appeal, and the court rejected the defense argument that 'junk science' was key to the prosecution. There was an exhaustive ... hearing conducted, which lasted almost a year."
"In any event, an exhaustive review of our case internally is underway," he said. "We always will work diligently to ensure convictions as well as the process are proper."
In am email to The News, Innocence Clinic co-director David Moran disputed McCabe's statement: "There has never been any evidentiary hearing on the validity of the fire science used against Mr. Deering, much less a yearlong review. Undersheriff McCabe’s claim to the contrary is simply false."
During a two-week jury trial, the case against Deering focused on an alleged drug debt owed by the father of four of the children and the fire being set to “send a message.”
Three jailhouse informants told investigators they had conversations with Deering in which he complained of nightmares in which the dead children came and spoke to him in his sleep. Two testified he had admitted setting the fire using lighter fluid he found on the front porch of the house.
Deering’s trial defense attorney, Arnold Weiner, said Friday his client had always professed his innocence in the arson fire.
“He always said he had nothing to do with it,” Weiner recalled.
Deering did not testify in his own defense. At sentencing, he insisted he had nothing to do with the crime.
“I don’t remember specifically asking the informants if they had been promised anything in exchange for their testimony but I’m 99% sure I did,” Weiner said. “I’ve handled murder, rape, drug cases since 1972 and that’s my style.
“You always ask them on why they are testifying,” Weiner said. “We know promises are made and it's important to get that information to the jury so they can weigh the credibility of a witness.”
While Weiner did not recall a “quid pro quo” exchange for testimony being an issue in the trial, he said for an attorney not to disclose such an arrangement “would be ethically and legally improper.”
“I’m sure I cross-examined (the informants) vigorously,” Weiner said. “Fifteen years later, I can’t recall exactly what they said. But even if I didn’t — or if they lied — it would be a duty of the assistant prosecutor to set it right in court.”
Weiner said he was glad McDonald was seeking an investigation of the case and described the county’s new prosecutor, who took office in January, “as a breath of fresh air.”
Beth LeBlanc contributed.