Lawyers ask court to vacate life term of man convicted in Royal Oak Twp. fire that killed 5 kids

Mike Martindale
The Detroit News

Pontiac — A joint legal motion was filed Thursday by the Michigan Innocence Clinic and Oakland County Prosecutor Karen McDonald seeking to have the life sentence of a man convicted in a fatal 2000 arson fire vacated and dismissed.

Juwan Deering, 50, has served 14 years of a life prison sentence for the Royal Oak Township fire in which five children lost their lives. Deering’s attorney, Imran Syed and McDonald both contend Deering never received a fair trial and should be released from prison until it is determined whether he should face charges. The request was filed with Oakland Circuit Judge Jeffery S. Matis but is not expected to be acted upon until later this month.

Juwan Deering has served 14 years of a life sentence on a 2006 conviction for a 2000 fire in Royal Oak Township that killed 5 children.

The filing comes after McDonald held a news conference earlier this week to detail findings from a three-month investigation by Beth Greenberg Morrow, a special prosecutor McDonald hired to look into allegations that the fire was incorrectly determined to be an arson by Oakland County fire investigator James Lehtola, who retired in 2006.

According to David Smith, a fire investigation expert hired by the Michigan Innocence Clinic, Lehtola, relied on “outdated myths about fire behavior” for a theory that the fire was deliberately started on the porch outside the home. Informants later testified Deering told them he used lighter fluid to start it. Smith said there was “no credible evidence that ignitable liquid was sprayed on the porch.” Smith was touted as a fire expert having participated in 7,000 fire investigations over his 40-year career.

Another expert, Robert Trenkle, former president of the Oakland County Association of Fire and Arson Investigators with 35 years’ experience in fire investigations, said he reviewed initial findings and also concluded the fire was not an arson. 

The Michigan Innocence Project said debunking the arson theory was important because “a determination that the fire started inside the home would derail the prosecutor’s case because it would contradict the informants testimony.”

During a review of case files, according to Thursday’s court filing, the innocence clinic review broadened to questions of possible misconduct by lawmen, including the assistant prosecutor in the case which led to Deering’s conviction.

McDonald said factors, beyond the reliance on alleged outdated science, that led to Deering’s conviction include non-disclosure of evidence to the defense that three jailhouse informants received reduction of charges and sentences in their separate, respective cases. She also cites ineffective defense counsel; and concerns regarding actions and testimony of certain individuals that could constitute ethical misconduct, possibly criminal offenses.

Both assistant prosecutor Gregory Townsend, and Oakland County Sheriff's Detective David Wurtz said during the trial that none of the informants had received special favors in exchange for their cooperation in the case.

McDonald on Tuesday played a video tape found in the case files of the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office of an interview conducted by Wurtz with an older sibling of the victims who witnessed and survived the fire. That teen, Timm Dean, 13, identified Deering in a photo lineup, said he knew him as a neighbor but insisted Deering did not set the fire. 

Morrow’s report identified those talking with Dean as Mary Kaye Neuman, a forensic interviewer and Wurtz, now retired and working part-time with the sheriff’s office as a crime analyst.

“There is no evidence that the Oakland County Prosecutor’s Office or the trial prosecutor were aware of the evidence," Morrow wrote. 

Neuman confirmed Wednesday she was assigned to the prosecutor’s office in 2000 but never filed a report on the interview she participated in nor remembered it.

“I never wrote a report on that interview,” said Neuman, reached Wednesday by The News. “That wasn’t my job. I worked child sexual assault cases and did interviews all the time but the reports of them were always done by officers involved in the investigations or CPS (Child Protective Services.)

“I never even knew that (Deering's) case went to trial,” said Neuman, who now works for Oakland County’s Friend of the Court in juvenile matters. “And that interview was 21 years ago. I really don’t remember anything about it.”

David W. Williams, McDonald’s chief assistant prosecuting attorney, said Wednesday Neuman would not have written a report and that his office was not aware that a videotape existed of Timm Dean, the oldest and only surviving sibling, discussing knowing Deering when shown a group of photos.

“There was no investigative report of the photo lineup and we didn’t even know the second part of the video existed until the sheriff’s office provide their case files,” he said. “One fear was that the information was buried.”

Neither Dean nor Neuman were called to testify at trial, Williams said. 

Townsend, who was the trial prosecutor, could not be reached for comment. He left the Oakland County Prosecutor's Office for a job with the Michigan Attorney General's Office which he retired from in July.

David Gorcyca, who was prosecutor at the time of the Deering case, said he doesn't think Townsend knew of the photo lineup "because it never came up."

“In its entirety, it doesn’t sound as if he (Deering) got a fair trial and his conviction should be vacated,” Gorcyca said.

Syed said the Michigan Innocence Clinic took up Deering’s case in 2016 after he had gone through routine appeals of his conviction. Syed said he hopes to have a hearing in the next two weeks to ask Matis to vacate Deering’s conviction and release his client.

McDonald said Tuesday that she's unsure whether her office would seek another trial for Deering until she received a report from the Michigan State Police who are doing an independent investigation of the case. There is no set date for that to be completed.

Oakland County Undersheriff Michael McCabe said Thursday his department is doing an independent investigation of allegations of professional misconduct by detectives and the assistant prosecutor but will also await State Police findings.

"There have been unfair comparisons already made on how something was investigated over 20 years ago," said McCabe. "Before and after the conviction we had several fire experts review findings and they agreed everything was done properly. Now people are making statements regarding it using different standards. And speculating on how case files may have been maintained over 20 years when several people have accessed them at various times.

"I think it would be best to wait until the State Police investigation is  available and our investigation completed before drawing any conclusions on what was done, If it was done properly or what could or should be done," he said. "Get all the facts."

mmartindale@detroitnews.com

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