Man freed, won't face new trial in Oakland Co. fire that killed 5 kids

Mike Martindale
The Detroit News

Pontiac — Juwan Deering stepped out of an Oakland County courthouse Thursday and into the arms of his family as a free man.

The 50-year-old spent the past 15 years serving a life prison term for an arson fire that claimed the lives of five children. But a judge vacated his conviction last week and Oakland County Prosecutor Karen McDonald said minutes before he was released that she isn't going to retry the case. 

"I never gave up (hope)," said Deering outside Oakland County Circuit Court. "I didn't think a god I believed in would keep me in prison for something I didn't do."

Oakland County Circuit Judge Jeffrey Matis, at the urging of the Michigan Innocence Clinic and McDonald, last week vacated Deering's conviction on five counts of murder on grounds that critical evidence had been withheld from Deering's defense attorney and that Deering had been denied a fair trial.  

Deja Deering-Poole, 32, center, greets her father, Juwan Deering, after he was released from custody after all charges in a 2000 arson fire were dropped by Prosecutor Karen McDonald, Thursday, Sept. 30, 2021, in Pontiac.

"This was the day I looked forward to, seeing my family again," said a smiling Deering as he was rushed by family, friends and strangers as he exited the courthouse. Among those he didn't know were members of the National Organization of Exonerees who presented him with a yellow T-shirt with the number "15" on the back to represent the years he was incarcerated.

"For all those (still in prison), I hope they don't give up and one day they will be free," he said, adding he was "ecstatic" and "couldn't be happier" as he looked around. 

"The sun has never shined as bright as it is today," said Deering, who told reporters he was grateful to his family and others who have supported him. 

He said he "can't be angry" about the time he spent behind bars. Now, his focus is on re-establishing himself in society. But first, Deering said he wanted to "get something to eat."

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 prosecution as well as new evidence. 

McDonald, during a news conference after Deering's release, explained why she decided not to pursue the case further. 

"It was the right thing to do," she said. "There was evidence that Deering, his defense, nor we, ever saw. ... I know he did not receive a fair trial."

Michigan Innocence Clinic attorney Imran Syed has said the case against Deering was largely based on the testimony of jailhouse informants who testified Deering had implicated himself in the fire deaths.

But neither Deering’s trial attorney nor the jury knew that in exchange for their cooperation those witnesses received preferential treatment, including lesser sentences. In one case, charges were dismissed against an informant who implicated Deering.

Juwan Deering smiles as he is greeted by his brother, Antawan Deering of Detroit, on Thursday, Sept. 30, 2021, after he was released from custody. Oakland County Prosecutor Karen McDonald told a judge she would not retry Deering for a 2000 arson fire that killed five children.

Survivor testimony withheld

Syed’s appeal team also established the lone survivor of the fire, Timm Dean, who was 13 at the time, told a sheriff's detective in an interview never introduced during Deering's trial that Dean had recognized Deering from a photo lineup because he knew him as a neighbor. But Dean maintained Deering was not the person Dean had heard outside the home possibly setting the fire.

The Oakland County Prosecutor's Office, McDonald noted Thursday, denied warrants three times in the case in 2000 under a previous prosecutor before Deering was charged.

"There is good reason for that — it should not have been charged," she said.

David Gorcyca, who was the county prosecutor at the time, said Thursday that he wasn’t aware that prior warrants had been denied until talking with McDonald several weeks ago. As prosecutor, Gorcyca said, he would not have been notified of rejected cases. He said there could be various reasons, chief among them insufficient evidence.

“Generally speaking, they can be approved, denied or furthered — cases in which further work or more information is required before a criminal warrant will be considered or written,” Gorcyca noted. 

McDonald’s chief administrative officer, Betsey Hage, said in a Thursday email that three prior requests for warrants were denied in 2000 due to a “lack of credible evidence and additional suspects.”

Gorcyca said McDonald shared the findings of her office's review of Deering's case with him and the former prosecutor also believes that Deering did not get a fair trial. He did not argue Thursday against McDonald’s decision not to retry Deering.

He would not speculate on whether misconduct occurred by anyone in his office but agreed the evidence — especially the statements from the surviving child, Timm Dean — should have been shared with all involved, including the defense attorney.

Deering did not testify in his own defense at trial but always professed he had nothing to do with the fire. He was a known drug dealer who lived in the neighborhood and one police theory was that he set the fire in retaliation for a drug debt owed by the victims’ father, Oliver Dean, who was not at home at the time.

Deering was sentenced to life in prison in 2006 for the April 2000 fire on Pasadena in Royal Oak Township 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.

Relatives of the children could not be reached through numbers listed in public records. McDonald did not direct any of her Thursday statements to the families of the victims, but in court, she talked to the judge about being accountable.

 "The families of the five children who died in that fire have suffered pain that most of us could never imagine. Those five children died horrifically, and their families deserved certainty, and peace, and a time to heal.  Instead, they have suffered the repeated reopening of their wounds," she said.

"Today, there is nothing you or I can do to mitigate their pain, but we can at least acknowledge it. We owe it to the families of these children to hold ourselves to the highest standards and hold ourselves accountable.”

Deering's appeals team, in a bid to overturn his conviction, pursued prosecutorial misconduct, violations of due process and flawed evidence.

Juwan Deering holds a T-shirt from the National Organization of Exonerees that displays the number of years he served in prison on Thursday, Sept. 30, 2021. He was released from custody Thursday after Oakland County Prosecutor Karen McDonald told a judge she would not retry Deering for a 2000 arson fire that killed five children.

Future plans

Syed told The Detroit News on Thursday that Deering's next steps haven't been finalized. For now, Syed said, Deering is living with relatives at an undisclosed location until he's able to get his own place. 

“The major thing is the criminal case is over and will be erased from his record,” Syed said. “Mr. Deering has to get some ID and a driver’s license and all the things all of us need to function in the world and so he can get on with his life."

Syed added he will work to get Deering reimbursements for expenses his client has had to pay while incarcerated. 

“It's obscene but while he is considered indigent and in need of a state-paid attorney, he was still being charged each month for legal-related expenses, including victim fees," Syed said. "The fees came right out of his prisoner account from the few dollars he made working jobs while in prison. I haven’t tabulated it all up but it is money he should be refunded.”

Syed said Deering intends to apply for reimbursement from the state of Michigan for wrongful imprisonment.

“A fund has been established that can pay inmates who qualify to receive up to $50,000 for each year they were wrongfully imprisoned,” Syed said. “This can take a while — likely months — but it is something we want to put in motion for him.”

He's also encouraging Deering to meet with civil attorneys to discuss other options in claiming damages for his years behind bars. It would be inappropriate for Innocence Clinic attorneys to be involved in such efforts, he said. 

“This is also something that can take some time," he said. "He needs to talk with a couple different attorneys and find out what he is comfortable doing.”

Oakland County Prosecutor Karen McDonald on Thursday.

Ethics probe ongoing

McDonald said Thursday that a Michigan State Police probe continues into possible prosecutorial misconduct in Deering's case that could potentially lead to criminal charges against attorneys and also trial witnesses if it is determined anyone perjured themselves on the witness stand.

Oakland County Undersheriff Michael McCabe has said his department is doing an independent investigation into allegations of professional misconduct in Deering's case but will also await state police findings.

On Thursday, the sheriff's office had no comment on McDonald's decision and confirmed that its probe is ongoing. 

While jail-house informants or "snitches" are not uncommon in criminal cases, prosecutors and investigators are expected to disclose what — if anything — was offered to informants in exchange for their cooperation. The findings of special prosecutor Beth Morrow, who conducted a probe into Deering's case, court records and evidence indicate prosecutors concealed such cooperation.

McDonald has noted concerns over established protocols not being followed in the prosecutor’s office, ineffective counsel for Deering and the failure by police to share key evidence, including a videotaped interview with Timm Dean, the survivor of the fire, conducted by then-Oakland County Sheriff's Detective David Wurtz.

At trial Wurtz, now a part-time case analyst for the sheriff's office, denied informants were promised leniency, special favors or early release in exchange for their testimony. Gregory Townsend, the assistant prosecutor who tried Deering's case, reiterated the same in his closing argument to the jury.

Townsend and Wurtz have not commented on the investigative findings. 

Townsend once headed major crimes for the Oakland County Prosecutor’s Office. He later moved on to the State Attorney General’s Office and was one of the lead attorneys in the prosecution of state charges in the alleged kidnapping plot against Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

After questions were raised about the prosecution of Deering, Townsend was reassigned to other duties, the attorney general’s office has said. He retired in July.

McDonald has initiated a Conviction Integrity Unit in her office to work with groups like the Innocence Clinic on any appealed convictions.

She said her office is reviewing two other homicide cases in which the same witnesses who testified in Deering's case were used to obtain convictions. 

mmartindale@detroitnews.com