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A 52-year-old man serving a life sentence for murder has had his conviction overturned after a federal judge ruled that Wayne County prosecutors and a Wayne County circuit judge improperly withheld evidence from his attorney during his trial 14 years ago.

The evidence — that the prosecution’s star witness against defendant John Henry Ray was a Romulus police informant — was also “fraudulently” withheld by the Michigan Attorney General’s Office during an appeal, federal Judge David Lawson ruled last month.

The relationship of the witness, Christopher Straughter, with police was revealed during a Nov. 11, 2004, hearing between prosecutors and the judge, without Ray’s defense attorney Todd Perkins. When Perkins asked for a transcript of the hearing, Judge Brian Sullivan said nothing relevant had been discussed and sealed the transcript.

One of the officers in charge of the case, Michael St. Andre, later became Romulus police chief, and in 2014 was convicted of fraud in an unrelated matter.

Prosecutors must decide whether to drop the murder charges or retry the case against Ray, who had previous convictions for criminal sexual conduct, robbery and home invasion. Because the trial included two co-defendants, officials also must decide how to handle their cases.

Assistant Wayne County prosecutor Maria Miller said no decision had been made.

Benton Martin of the Federal Defender Office, one of Ray’s attorneys in the federal appeal, said: “It’s obvious that an injustice happened in Wayne County during (Ray’s) initial trial.

“It’s clear under the law that the defense should have had this evidence about (Straughter’s) relationship with the police during the trial,” Martin said. “This was the only witness against (Ray), and the jury should have known that (Straughter) had a relationship with police as a paid informant.”

Ray was tried with co-defendants Juanita Michelle-Elam and Jairus Andrae Perkins in the July 18, 2004, shooting deaths in Romulus of DeShone Moore, 23, and 20-year-old Amanda Zarbaugh, who was four months pregnant.

The killings happened during an attempted armed robbery in Zarbaugh’s Romulus home. The target of the robbery was Zarbaugh’s friend Straughter, who was rumored to carry large amounts of cash because he was a drug dealer, according to testimony.

Straughter testified that Ray had helped plan the robbery, and that Ray held him and another man at gunpoint outside the house in the 29000 block of Northline near Middle Belt, while Moore and Zarbaugh were killed inside.

While studying the case file, Perkins said he saw a note that led him to believe Straughter had a relationship with Romulus police. A hearing was held to determine the relationship — although Perkins was not invited.

“I don’t know why they kept me out of the hearing,” he said.

In his ruling denying Perkins’ motion, Sullivan wrote there was “no relevant relation between this case and Mr. Christopher Straughter and the Romulus Police Department.”

Sullivan told The Detroit News prosecutors asked for the information to be withheld. Miller said she didn’t know why assistant prosecutor Christine Kowal wanted to keep the hearing transcript from Perkins.

“There was no reason given for the request that was placed on the record by the (assistant prosecutor) handling the case,” Miller said in an email.

Perkins admitted his client was outside the house where the killings took place, but insisted he was not in on the robbery, and that he didn’t own a gun. A jury rejected the claims and convicted Ray of several crimes, including felony murder and the willful killing of an unborn child.

After his conviction, Ray unsuccessfully filed motions seeking to have the transcript of the 2004 hearing unsealed.

The Michigan Court of Appeals heard Ray’s appeal in 2006. However, Ray’s appellate attorney Daniel Rust never tried to unseal the hearing transcript, and didn’t raise the issue during the appeal — an oversight Lawson criticized in his ruling.

“Curiosity alone, it seems, would propel the average lawyer to learn what happened at that hearing — perhaps by moving to unseal the record — and, failing that, to raise the issue on appeal,” Lawson wrote.

The appeal was denied, and Ray filed a “habeas” claim in federal court, insisting his constitutional right to a fair trial had been violated.

During the initial federal proceedings before Lawson, lawyers for the attorney general’s office said no evidence had been withheld during Ray’s initial trial. Lawson ruled Ray’s claim had no merit.

But after Lawson honored the attorney general’s office request that the transcript of the 2004 hearing be unsealed, the judge reversed his decision and on April 13, granted Ray a new trial.

“The Court’s (initial) ruling was based on the false premise — which the State fraudulently advanced before this Court — that there was nothing in the state court record to suggest that any material information was withheld by it from the defense before trial,” Lawson wrote in his opinion. “It appears that the state appellate court based its ruling on the same false premise.”

Andrea Bitely, spokeswoman for the attorney general’s office, declined comment because the case was ongoing.

In his ruling, Lawson also said Sullivan improperly kept Ray’s attorneys out of the 2004 hearing, and that he was in error when he withheld the transcript from the defense.

When Sullivan was asked if, in retrospect, he thought it was a mistake to keep Ray’s attorneys out of the hearing, he said: “It doesn’t matter what I think; that’s the ruling.”

Sullivan defended his ruling that nothing relevant had been discussed in the meeting. “I was led to believe there was not a relevant relation; that was my conclusion, based on the hearing,” he said.

One of Ray’s attorneys in the federal appeal, Michele G. Cober, said elements of the case were “shocking.”

“It was shocking, not only that the transcript of the (2004) hearing was sealed; it’s shocking my client’s lawyer was not present,” she said. “This was a violation of his Sixth Amendment right to a fair trial.”

“Clearly, I’m happy with (Lawson’s) decision,” Cober said. “I’m thrilled with the result; I just wish this error could have been uncovered sooner, because Mr. Ray has spent many years in prison.”

“Given the new questions this raises about the convictions of Mr. Perkins and Ms. Elam, our office is working to assist the trial court in making sure that appropriate appellate attorneys are appointed to review the cases and raise any new legal challenges.”

Bradley Hall, administrator of the Michigan Appellate Assigned Counsel System, said his organization is trying to get lawyers for the other two defendants.

“Given the new questions this raises about the convictions of Mr. Perkins and Ms. Elam, our office is working to assist the trial court in making sure that appropriate appellate attorneys are appointed to review the cases and raise any new legal challenges,” Hall said.

On May 4, the court ordered that attorneys be appointed for Perkins and Elam.

ghunter@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2134

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