Wrongly convicted man released after nearly 15 years in prison

Aaron Salter

The testimony of a man who told police he saw a "thin" man "firing a gun" was responsible for putting a 6-foot, 4-inch, 250-pound former high school football player in prison for 15 years for a murder prosecutors now say he didn't commit.

A Wayne County circuit judge on Wednesday dismissed a 2003 murder conviction against Aaron Salter, a 36-year-old man prosecutors admit was wrongfully convicted due to mistaken identity. 

The sole witness in the case later said he was never certain Salter was the shooter.

Salter's attorney insists his client was framed by Detroit cops and says he plans to file a lawsuit seeking damages.

Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy issued a statement Wednesday exonerating Salter.

"It has been determined that the case against Mr. Salter was based primarily on mistaken identification by the main witness in the case," Worthy said. "The system failed him. Nothing I can say will bring back the years of his life spent in prison. Justice is truly being served today."

Salter was released Wednesday from the Michigan Department of Corrections' Chippewa Correction facility.

The Federal Defender Office, which represented Salter during his federal appeal, said in a statement: "FDO investigators and attorneys uncovered previously undisclosed evidence and interviewed witnesses who could confirm Mr. Salter’s alibi at the time of the shooting.

"They found and interviewed a witness who was the sole eyewitness at trial, who stated that he was never certain Mr. Salter was the shooter," the defender office said. "In 2013, a prisoner contacted the FDO attorneys claiming to have personal knowledge of the shooting. After following up on that lead, the FDO attorneys hired a former FBI polygrapher to conduct a polygraph examination of Aaron Salter, which he passed."

Because of the exoneration, Detroit police Sgt. Nicole Kirkwood said homicide detectives will reopen the case to hunt for the real killer. 

Worthy said she will "recommend the to Michigan Attorney General’s Office that Mr. Salter receive wrongful conviction compensation."

Salter's attorney, Wolfgang Mueller, said Wednesday he is working on filing the state claim, and is pursuing further litigation.

“We will file for Aaron’s just compensation from the state for this wrongful imprisonment, and we expect to hold the police officers accountable in court for framing an innocent man,” Mueller said in an email. 

Under a 2016 law, Michiganians who were wrongly convicted can qualify for $50,000 for every year spent in prison, making Salter’s imprisonment worth roughly $700,000.

It was dark the night of Aug. 6, 2003, when Jamar Luster, Kimberly Allen and Michael Payne were drinking on the front porch of a house on Parkgrove in Detroit, according to court documents. Witnesses said two people suddenly appeared and started shooting.

Luster, Allen and Payne scrambled for safety and survived the carnage, although they sustained injuries. Bystander Willie Thomas, 36, wasn't so lucky, dying from gunshot wounds.

Luster later told police he thought a man named "Rob" had pulled the trigger. He described the shooter as a black male aged 26 or 27, 5-foot-7 and weighing 150 to 170 pounds — a good 80-100 pounds lighter than Salter.

Detroit police homicide detective Donald Olsen showed Luster a photograph of Salter. Luster fingered Salter as the triggerman, court records show. Salter was charged with first-degree murder, among other charges.

During Salter's preliminary examination, Olsen said he determined Salter was the main suspect after Luster described the shooters.

Olsen testified he “took a hunch that it was (Salter) because” Luster had mentioned “that he had seen the person before on a few occasions," court records show.

After doing “some research at the precinct,” Olsen then said he decided Salter might be the shooter, according to court filings.

At Salter's December 2003 jury trial, "the principal and sole identifying witness was the surviving 24-year-old male" — Luster, who had been shot once in his elbow, according to court records.

"Luster’s testimony about how he came to identify Salter was confusing," said a brief filed in February in U.S. District Court by the Federal Defender Office.

"The prosecutor asked if the detective showed him a photograph ... (and Luster) denied saying that the single photo Olsen showed him was Rob," the brief said. "When the prosecutor asked why Luster picked out the photo, he responded, 'because he fit the description of the person that was shooting.'

"Luster’s description of identification procedure was not the only part of the story that changed at trial. He said that there were two cars full of people waving guns who drove by Parkgrove earlier in the day, instead of one."

In January 2004, Salter was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole, a conviction upheld by the Michigan Court of Appeals in 2005. Four years later, the Michigan Supreme Court declined to hear Salter's case.

Salter claimed during his appeals that "identification procedures were unduly suggestive," court records show.

During the appeal, "an investigator at the Federal Defender Office checked with the Detroit Police Department, the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office, and the Michigan Attorney General’s Office, and not one of these law enforcement agencies could find or match (the photo used to implicate Salter)," according to the Federal Defender Office brief.

In March, the Conviction Integrity Unit at the Wayne County Prosecutor's Office, which had been created only two months earlier, was asked by the Federal Defender Office to review Salter's case.

A detective and an attorney were assigned to investigate, and the probe revealed Luster's identification of Salter had been mistaken, and that no other evidence supported his conviction.

Luster, authorities learned, did not know the shooter. It was dark and Luster could only see through a privacy screen and only for a moment, while trying to flee, with his back turned.

In three photo arrays, Luster, now 39, picked three people who resembled the shooters. 

"He acknowledged not ever being sure of his identification of Aaron Salter," Worthy's statement read — adding that even the officer in charge of the case called the ID "very weak" in recent interviews. 

"This was the first time (the prosecutor's office) was informed of the investigating officer's opinion about the case," the statement said. 

The Conviction Integrity Unit "established that the (office) cannot prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Aaron Salter committed this crime," Worthy's statement said. "Salter never fit the description of the shorter shooter, and there is no evidence which supports that theory." 

Wayne County Circuit Judge Annette Berry originally handled Salter's case. She had rejected a motion for relief from judgment as recently as January 2017 and now has issued an order vacating the conviction.

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Twitter: @GeorgeHunter_DN