Oakland prosecutor: Vacate life sentence for man convicted in 2000 fire killing 5 kids

Mike Martindale
The Detroit News

Pontiac — Oakland County Prosecutor Karen McDonald said Tuesday an independent probe found possible ethical violations by an assistant prosecutor and new evidence leading her to recommend the vacating of a life sentence for a defendant in an April 2000 fatal arson fire. 

Juwan Deering was convicted on Aug. 1, 2006, in the fire on Pasadena Street in Royal Oak Township that killed Taleigha Dean, 10; Craig Dean, 8; Aaron Dean, 7; Eugene Dean, 5; and an 11-year-old friend, Michelle Frame. 

Juwan Deering was convicted to a life sentence for a fire that killed five children in Royal Oak Township. The Oakland County prosecutor now says the life sentence should be vacated based on the findings of a new probe.

In light of newly discovered evidence, Deering, now 50 and having served 14 years in prison for the crimes, could move to have his conviction vacated or seek a new trial.

“Defense attorneys will file to have the conviction vacated, and we will recommend that as well,” McDonald said at a Tuesday press conference. “The special prosecutor does not believe Deering got a fair trial, and I agree. She plans to file a request to the court to have it vacated and dismissed.”

Deering was convicted on evidence which included an arson investigation critics claim was flawed by outdated science, his reputation as a neighborhood drug dealer who was owed a debt by the victims' father, Oliver Dean, and largely, the word of cellmates who claimed he shared information about his involvement in the fatal fire.

While jail-house informants or "snitches" are not uncommon in criminal cases, the prosecution and investigators are expected to disclose what — if anything — was offered to informants in exchange for their cooperation. According to Special prosecutor Beth G. Morrow, court records and evidence indicate the prosecution concealed such cooperation.

Morrow conducted a three-month investigation, concluding "critical exculpatory and impeachment evidence was not disclosed to the defense, and that failure constitutes prosecutorial misconduct," a copy of the report provided Tuesday notes. 

Deering's conviction, she wrote, "was in violation of his due process rights under the federal and state constitutions."

"The only question remaining is whether Deering can be retried or whether he will be exonerated," it reads. "Either way, because Deering was denied due process at his first trial, the prosecution is constitutionally required to move to vacate Deering's convictions and sentences."

Even if approved by a circuit judge, McDonald said it remains to be determined whether her office would proceed with a new trial for Deering. She added it would rely mainly on the results of an independent Michigan State Police investigation being conducted on case. A review is also being done on other cases in which the Deering informants cooperated with investigators to obtain convictions, including other homicides, she said.

McDonald said there are concerns over established protocols not being followed in the prosecutor’s office, ineffective counsel for Deering and the failure by lawmen to share key evidence, including a video-taped interview with surviving teenage eyewitness.

McDonald played a video clip Tuesday which showed a forensic interviewer, May Kaye Neuman, and Oakland County Sheriff's Detective David Wurtz interviewing Timm Dean, then 13, the oldest sibling home at the time of the fire. The teen said he was on a living room couch when he heard a voice he recognized, saw the fire on the porch, went to his mother's bedroom and tried to get some of his siblings out of the house.

Timm Dean, who did not testify at trial, was later shown a photo "lineup" which included Juwan Deering. The teen said he recognized Deering as someone who lived in his neighborhood but Dean said Deering was not the person he heard outside the home before the fire. The teenager stressed he did not believe Deering — the person whose photo he identified — set the fire.

A concern of both Morrow and McDonald is that the photo lineup was not in the prosecution's trial, handwritten notes or appellate files or in any police narrative report although Wurtz, who was present and participated in it, knew of its existence. 

"There is no evidence that the Oakland County Prosecutor's Office or the trial prosecutor were aware of the evidence," Morrow wrote, noting it was found in a case file box turned over to Michigan State Police by the sheriff's office. It was not turned over to the original defense attorney, officials said. 

McDonald said she reviewed the case in May at the request of the Michigan Innocence Clinic, which raised questions about evidence and the credibility of three jailhouse informants that weren't disclosed to Deering’s defense attorney or the jury in 2006.

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," McDonald said when announcing the independent probe.

“As prosecutors, we have an ethical duty to disclose information that bears on the guilt or innocence of the accused,” she 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.”

Imran Syed, an attorney with the innocence clinic, has been working on Deering’s appellate case for nearly a decade and is happy with the findings by Mcdonald and special prosecutor. 

“...we may be moving closer to getting Juwan released from prison," he said. 

Syed said he expects to be filing a motion this week with Oakland Circuit Judge Jeffery S. Matis seeking the vacating of Deering’s conviction and release.

At trial Wurtz, now a part-time case analyst for the sheriff's office, was cross-examined about the informants by defense attorney Arnold Weiner and denied they were promised leniency, special favors or early release in exchange for their testimony.

Gregory Townsend, the prosecutor in Deering's case, reiterated the same in his closing argument to the jury.  All three were out of jail, he said, and there was "nothing in the world" that could have been done for them.

Raymond Jeffries, when in custody a year after being in jail the same time as Deering, said Deering told him "if he could live his life over, five children would still be alive." Jeffries received a reduced sentence for receiving and concealing stolen property and fleeing and eluding police based on "assisting in multiple homicide/arson" case out of Royal Oak Township, according to prosecutor's notes.

Jeffries testified at both Deering's preliminary exam and trial that he'd received no benefit for his testimony.

Phillip Turner was in jail on a drunk driving offense and was intentionally put in a cell by detectives to get information from Deering. Turner testified during Deering's trial he had been an informant in other homicides.

Less than a month after testifying that Deering told him he started the fire with lighter fluid he'd found on the porch, Turner was charged with multiple counts of criminal sexual conduct and uttering and publishing in a separate case. He later pleaded no contest to a reduced charge. 

Turner, who had an extensive criminal record, received a 62 month sentence, well below the 117-320 months he would have received if found guilty of the initial offenses. Townsend appeared at his sentencing.

Informant Ralph McMorris testified that Deering told him that he was responsible for the fire and it was over a drug debt.

McMorris had pending criminal matters in Genesee County regarding financial transaction devices and his case was dismissed with handwritten notes referencing Townsend and Wurtz. Evidence of an apparent relationship found in the case file included a letter by McMorris to Townsend referring to detectives Wurtz and detective Gary Miller by their first names. Miller has since passed away.

Townsend and Wurtz could not be reached Tuesday.

Morrow concluded "the failure to divulge the confidential informants' relationships with the OCSO (Oakland County Sheriff's Office) and OCPO (Oakland County Prosecutor's Office) weighs heavily in violation of constitutional due process and accompanying federal and state law.

"Jeffries received a sentence deviation for his cooperation. Turner received a charge reduction and a sentence at the bottom of the guidelines just weeks after testimony, McMorris received complete dismissal of charges," Morrow's report notes. 

"The prosecution's case hinged on the jury hearing and believing the inculpatory statements by the jail informants," Morrow added in the 14-page report released Tuesday. 

 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." The status of that probe is not known.

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.”

The three informants told investigators they had conversations with Deering who'd complained of nightmares in which the dead children came and spoke to him in his sleep. Two testified Deering admitted to setting the fire using lighter fluid he found on the front porch of the house.

Weiner, Deering's trial attorney, told The Detroit News Deering had always professed his innocence in the arson fire.

“He always said he had nothing to do with it,” Weiner said.

Deering did not testify in his own defense and at sentencing 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,” the veteran defense lawyer 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.”

Weiner stressed for an attorney not to disclose such an arrangement “would be ethically and legally improper.”

“I’m sure I cross-examined (the informants) vigorously,” he 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.”

Townsend once headed major crimes for the Oakland County Prosecutor’s office and pursued some of the toughest, most high-profile cases. He has moved on to the State Attorney General’s Office is one of the lead attorneys in the prosecution of state charges in the alleged kidnapping plot against Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

After questions were raised in the handling of the fatal arson fire, he was reassigned to other duties, the attorney general’s office said. Townsend retired in July.


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