'I didn't belong here': Man released from prison after Pontiac murder conviction vacated

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

A man imprisoned for 32 years for a Pontiac murder he's maintained he did not commit was released Wednesday from a Jackson prison as one of the first exonerations to stem from Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel's Conviction Integrity Unit. 

Nessel's office asked Oakland County Circuit Judge Rae Lee Chabot Wednesday to vacate the conviction of 56-year-old Gilbert Lee Poole Jr., who was convicted in the June 7, 1988, slaying of Robert Mejia, 35, of Pontiac.

At the Wednesday hearing, Poole became emotional as he recounted his trial at the age of 22 and his time fighting his conviction from prison. He thanked the groups who helped to overturn his conviction.

Gilbert Lee Poole Jr., left, and his lead attorney Marla Mitchell-Cichon celebrate Wednesday as they arrive at a pizza party in Jackson recognizing his release from prison after his 1988 murder conviction was vacated on May 26, 2021.

"God stepped in and sent me a band of angels to look past the rules and regulations and look to see who was standing here in the furnace," Poole said in a recording of the hearing. "I was standing here in the furnace. I didn’t belong here.”

Investigators now know that the type of evidence relied on in the prosecution of Poole — specifically testimony matching a bite mark on Mejia’s arm to Poole — is no longer recognized as a scientific means of linking an individual to a crime scene, Nessel said Wednesday. 

Additionally, post-conviction DNA testing on crime scene evidence did not match Poole's but belonged to an unknown person, Nessel said. At the time of the trial, DNA testing was not used as an investigatory tool.

"If we only knew then what we know now, Mr. Poole would never have spent the past three decades in prison for a murder he did not commit," Nessel said. "...We cannot restore the time that he lost, and for that I am truly sorry."

For more than a decade, the Western Michigan University-Cooley Law School Innocence Project has been involved in Poole's case and, in 2015, were able to secure DNA testing of evidence in the case in an appeal that went up to the Michigan Supreme Court.

The DNA testing, performed in 2016, found that several blood stains from the scene were from an individual other than Poole or Mejia. Poole was excluded from all tested samples.

Marla Mitchell-Cichon, Poole's lawyer through the Innocence Project for the past 18 years, said at the Wednesday hearing that the case had "died a thousand deaths" over the years, and Poole's family and friends have since passed away or moved on. 

"He has lost everything," Mitchell-Cichon said. "We are his family, and we are very proud to stand in that role today.”

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, left, gives Gilbert Lee Poole Jr. a hug in Jackson on Wednesday as he became of the first exonorees freed by Nessel's office, which successfully got his 1988 murder conviction vacated.

When Nessel began the conviction integrity unit in 2019, the Innocence Project brought Poole's case to her attention. The Attorney General’s office did a separate investigation that corroborated the Innocence Project’s work.

"I think everyone thought they were doing the right thing in relying on that evidence," Nessel said of bite mark evidence.

Mejia died of multiple stab wounds in his face, neck and chest and had a bite mark on his arm. An autopsy determined he had died about two days before his body was found in a field.

Poole was arrested five months later after his girlfriend told police the night of the killing she and Poole had argued and he'd gone out "to get money." She told police he came home red-faced and scratched and he told her he had murdered a man during a robbery.

But Poole had maintained, even after his conviction, that he did not kill anyone and he argued that blood evidence at the scene indicated someone else is responsible.

A dentist was the only witness to tie Poole to the crime scene by comparing an impression of his teeth to the bite mark on Mejia's arm, a method that has since been debunked, according to the Cooley Innocence Project. 

Poole's defense had argued the real killer was a man seen with Mejia the night of his death who was said to carry a knife and had allegedly threatened people with it in the past.

Former lead Cooley Law School intern Veronica Femminineo, left, becomes emotional as she gives exoneree Gilbert Lee Poole, Jr. a hug Wednesday, May 26, 2021. Femminineo worked extensively on Poole's re-entry program.

Michigan's integrity unit is one of at least seven statewide conviction integrity initiatives nationwide. 

Since it was formed in 2019, Nessel's conviction has received 1,300 requests for assistance. She said Wednesday that the department is working through the requests and "numerous" DNA testings are being completed in the cases.

In 2019, the Department of Attorney General received a grant from the U.S. Department of Justice to screen claims of innocence through DNA testing. The Cooley Innocence Project also received a grant from the Department of Justice "to review cases in which unreliable forensics played a role in the conviction."

The two offices have been partnering on casework since 2019.