2 Detroit men to get new trials in '99 Mother's Day slaying
Two Detroit men serving life terms for the slaying of a woman on Mother's Day in 1999 are entitled to new trials, the Michigan Supreme Court ruled in a decision released Monday.
Kendrick Scott, 39, and Justly Johnson, 43, have proclaimed their innocence in the fatal shooting of Lisa Kindred, 35, on the city’s east side.
Lawyers at the Innocence Clinic at the University of Michigan based their request for a new trial partly on testimony from Kindred's son, Charmous Skinner Jr., that Scott and Johnson did not fit the description of the man who killed his mother.
In addition, according to court documents, two men, Antonio Burnette and Raymond Jackson, told police that Scott and Johnson murdered Kindred but later recanted their statements, saying they felt pressured to give false accounts.
Skinner was in a van with his mom and his two siblings when she was shot in the heart outside her in-laws’ house on Bewick Street on the city’s east side.
The justices ruled that "newly discovered evidence of Skinner's testimony in conjunction with the other evidence that would be presented on retrial would make a different result probable and therefore entitled both defendants to new trials."
Justice Richard Bernstein, who wrote the majority opinion, was joined by Chief Justice Stephen Markman and Justices David Viviano and Elizabeth Clement.
Justice Bridget McCormack did not participate due to her prior involvement as counsel for a party in the case. Justice Kurtis Wilder also abstained because he was on the Michigan Court of Appeals panel that decided Johnson and Scott's motions for peremptory reversal.
Justice Brian Zahra dissented, saying the defendants' newly discovered evidence "is not credible."
"Even assuming the evidence was credible, I disagree with the majority that this evidence would have made a difference on retrial, particularly in regard to Scott's jury trial in which the evidence, albeit circumstantial, was just short of overwhelming."
The Wayne County Prosecutor's Office is prepared to retry the men, spokeswoman Maria Miller said: "In light of the decision in the case we will be returning to the trial court for the Johnson and Scott cases."
Relatives of the two men were elated over the ruling.
"Praise God!" exclaimed Raynette Johnson, Justly Johnson's sister. "We're happy. We're excited."
Johnson said she believes the justices made up their minds after hearing that Burnette and Jackson had recanted their statements implicating Johnson and Scott.
Johnson's mother, TissaJohnson, was nearly speechless upon hearing the news.
"I'm really happy about it. I'm just happy," she said.
Scott's mother, Ernestine Smith, said: "I'm finally happy that someone finally heard 'em."
Smith called Monday's ruling "the best news I ever heard in 18 years. I'm so glad."
Imran Syed, assistant director of the Innocence Clinic, said the ruling was gratifying.
"That's what we fought for for seven years," he said. "We're very pleased that the Supreme Court has agreed with the new evidence."
Scott Lewis, a private investigator and former TV investigative reporter who helped Johnson and Scott get a new trial, said he was thrilled by the decision.
"This is the happiest day of my professional career," he said. "I fought long and hard for these two guys and never doubted their innocence."
He added: "Seeing the Supreme Court ruling brought me to tears. I am very proud to have uncovered the newly discovered evidence that overturned the verdict: the victim’s 8 1/2 year old son, an eyewitness who was never interviewed by the police. I am thankful to all of the attorneys and student attorneys at the University of Michigan Innocence Clinic, and the University of Wisconsin Innocence Project who worked tirelessly for years to get this case back into court."
The UM clinic arranged a photo lineup for Skinner, which he viewed in October 2011, and he did not identify either Johnson or Scott as his mother’s murderer.
“I will never forget the person’s face, and if it is him, I will testify against him,” Skinner told Lewis in a 2011 letter, according to court documents. “But if it’s not, I would not mind testifying on (suspects’) behalf.”
Wayne County Circuit Judge James Callahan had ruled that Skinner’s recollection of the night his mother was killed was not credible because his sight was enabled only by a dome light in the vehicle.
Skinner, who now lives in Pennsylvania, has a conviction for perjury in an unrelated 2011 case out of that state. Michigan Court of Appeals Judge Deborah Servitto ruled that should have no bearing on his testimony about his mother’s murder.
According to court documents, two men, Antonio Burnette and Raymond Jackson, told police that Scott and Johnson killed Kindred but they later recanted their statements, saying they felt pressured by investigators to give false accounts.
Burnette withdrew his statement during testimony at the pair’s original trials and testified again at a 2015 evidentiary hearing in the men’s bid for a new trial that he had falsely fingered Scott and Johnson as the killers.
Jackson has since died. One of his relatives testified that he told her his earlier statements incriminating Johnson and Scott were false.
In appellate briefs filed in January, the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office argued: “Despite what these defendants and probably all prisoners in the Michigan Department of Corrections would like the law to be, the law that actually exists holds that it is not enough to warrant a new trial merely for a prisoner to find a witness willing to challenge the proofs at trial.”
During phone interviews with The Detroit News from behind bars in April, Scott and Johnson told The News they were innocent. “I’ve been praying for this (day) for 19 years,” Scott said.
Scott said Johnson took the stand in his own defense, but his lawyer wouldn’t let him testify in his own defense.
Johnson said at the time that "we're 100 percent innocent. I'm kind of shocked we're still in prison, given the exculpatory evidence they have."