Oakland Co. judge grants new trial for man serving life in fire that killed 5 kids

Oralandar Brand-Williams
The Detroit News

Pontiac — An Oakland County Circuit Court judge on Tuesday granted a new trial for a man serving life in prison for a 2000 arson fire that killed five children.

Oakland County Circuit Court Judge Jeffrey Matis ruled Juwan Deering's constitutional rights were violated after Oakland County Prosecutor Karen McDonald, in an unusual twist, urged the judge to toss Deering's conviction.

Deering has served 14 years of a life sentence for the Royal Oak Township fire.

Juwan Deering sits in the courtroom of Judge Jeffrey Matis, Tuesday,  during a motion by the Oakland County prosecutor to try and free Deering from a murder/arson conviction from 2006 on grounds that the now-50 year-old man did not get a fair trial.

Matis cited videotaped testimony of a teen who'd been in the house when the fire broke out. The boy told investigators at the time that he knew of Deering and a voice he'd heard outside before the fire started was not Deering. The judge also noted findings from an independent probe of the case that found three jail-house informants had allegedly received sentence reductions and case dismissal in exchange for their statements against Deering.

"(The) defendant did not receive a fair trial," said Matis, noting Deering still faces five counts of murder and other charges in the case.

The judge declined to release Deering on bond. McDonald could ultimately dismiss the case. She is expected to make a decision by next week, officials said Tuesday. 

McDonald and attorneys with the Michigan Innocence Clinic have argued there was prosecutorial misconduct and that Deering did not receive a fair trial.

"What happened in this case undermines our community's faith and trust in our criminal justice system," McDonald told Matis on Tuesday. “I ask you to vacate Mr. Deering's conviction today. Everyone is entitled to due process. Juwan Deering is entitled to due process.

Deering's attorney Imran Syed of the University of Michigan's Innocence Clinic told Matis that Deering "had nothing to do with this fire."

"He was targeted in this crime," Syed said.

Deering, now 50, was sentenced to life in prison in 2006 for the fatal fire on Pasadena Street in Royal Oak Township in April 2000 that claimed the lives of Taleigha Dean, 10; Craig Dean, 8; Aaron Dean, 7; Eugene Dean, 5; and an 11-year-old friend, Michelle Frame. 

McDonald and the innocence group filed a motion earlier this month seeking to have Deering's life sentence vacated after an independent probe of the case found possible ethical violations by an assistant prosecutor involved in Deering's case as well as new evidence. 

McDonald reviewed the case in May at the request of the 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 at the time of his trial.

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.

From left, Juwan Deering, his attorney Imran Syed, and Oakland County Prosecutor Karen McDonald listen to Judge Jeffrey Matis, Tuesday, September 21, 2021, at Oakland County Circuit Court in Pontiac, Mich.

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

During an August news conference, McDonald played a video clip 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 Deering. The teen 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.

Deering did not testify in his own defense and at sentencing insisted he had nothing to do with the crime.

McDonald said officials with the Michigan State Police are investigating the allegations of prosecutorial misconduct in the Deering case.

Friends and supporters of Deering were among those who filled an overflow room Tuesday to listen to the hearing and had high hopes that he would be released.

Kenneth Nixon, who was exonerated in February for a wrongful conviction in 2005, was joined Tuesday by other exonerees, including Marvin Cotton and Larry Darnell Smith Jr., at the hearing to support Deering. 

"We feel that justice was partially served," Nixon, a member of the recently-formed National Organization of Exonerees, said after the hearing.