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Wrongfully convicted men sue Inkster, cops for $160M

George Hunter
The Detroit News

Novi — George Clark said he spent years caring for his sick mother, but was unable to be with her when she died. He also missed watching his kids grow up.

Kevin Harrington, the first member of his family to attend college, said he never earned the business degree he was working toward because he was unwillingly transferred from Wilberforce University in Ohio to "gladiator school" — the slang term for prison units that house young, violent inmates.

George Clark (l) and Kevin Harrington flank their attorney Wolfgang Mueller, who filed $160 million lawsuit against Inkster and two cops involved in the wrongful murder conviction that sent Clark and Harrington to prison for more than 17 years

Both men spent more than 17 years in prison for a 2002 Inkster murder before Wayne County prosecutors in April dropped the charges against them. An investigation by the office's Conviction Integrity Unit found the lead detective in the case had coerced and threatened witnesses, which prosecutors said, "impacted the integrity of the verdict."

Attorney Wolfgang Mueller announced Tuesday he'd filed a $160 million federal civil rights lawsuit in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan on behalf of Clark and Harrington. The lawsuit names as defendants the city of Inkster and former Inkster detectives Anthony Abdallah and Kevin Smith.

Phone calls Tuesday to the Inkster mayor's office and the Detroit-based law firm Allen Brothers, which represents Abdallah and Smith, were not immediately returned. Attempts to reach Abdallah and Smith were not successful.

During a press conference in Mueller's Novi office Tuesday, Clark and Harrington said $160 million couldn't begin to make up for what they've lost.

"I don't care if it's a billion dollars," said Harrington, who was 20 when he was arrested. "I had a bright future. I was the only person in my family to go to college. I was attaining the American Dream ... then they put me in gladiator school ... I'm locked in a cage for 23 hours a day, and let outside for only an hour.

"How do you put a price on a life?"

Clark, 49, said his mother lost the will to live after he was sentenced to life in prison.

"When they snatched me up and took my life away, she gave up hers," he said. "That was the hardest blow of all — that she passed worrying about this case. She gave up, thinking her son would never come home."

The lawsuit alleges the two Inkster detectives coerced and threatened witnesses into falsely implicating Clark and Harrington in the 2002 shooting death of Inkster resident Michael Martin.

Prosecutors made the same allegation in an April 23 press release announcing they'd dismissed murder charges against Clark and Harrington.

The Conviction Integrity Unit's six-month investigation uncovered "a disturbing pattern of behavior from the original lead detective that involved threatening and coercing a number of witnesses," the prosecutor's release said.

Prosecutors in the release said they'd recommended that Inkster police ask an outside agency to investigate the case.

Inkster police chief William Riley said Tuesday he requested that Michigan State Police look into the matter.

"We reached out to the state police shortly after (prosecutors made the recommendation)," Riley said. "We couldn't look into it, because our agency is involved. You hate to hear about things like this, and we want to find out what happened."

State Police First Lt. Michael Shaw said Tuesday the investigation is ongoing. Assistant Wayne County Prosecutor Maria Miller confirmed the state investigation, but declined further comment.

On Sept. 27, 2002, a boy who was passing out church flyers stumbled on Martin's body in a field that abutted the Parkside Apartments, near Henry Ruff and Michigan Avenue in Inkster. The boy flagged down a woman who lived nearby, BeariaStewart, as she was getting into her car. Stewart called 911. 

"Stewart, despite not being involved in any way in the crime, was taken to the Inkster Police department where she was read her constitutional rights and interrogated for over five hours by ... Abdallah and Smith," the 26-page complaint said. "She was not allowed to leave.

"Stewart advised Abdallah and Smith that she suffered from mental illness and could not read or write," the lawsuit said. "During the course of the interrogation, Abdallah and Smith repeatedly threatened to have Stewart arrested for lying to them because she denied knowing anything about the crime.

"Abdallah further threatened to call Social Services to take away her two young children because she was going to be arrested," the lawsuit said.

According to the lawsuit and prosecutors, Stewart finally told the detectives that Clark and Harrington were involved in the killing.

"After denying witnessing the event, (Stewart) eventually told the police that they saw George Clark and Kevin Harrington physically assault Mr. Martin, drag him into the field and heard shots fired," prosecutors said in their April press release.

Clark and Harrington were arrested and charged with first-degree murder. As he fought the charges, Clark said he shielded his mother, whom he said suffered from diabetes and was in the early stages of dementia.

"I tried to hide what the case was about," Clark said. "I just told her it was a probation violation."

During the trial, Stewart testified that she didn’t remember several things she'd said at a pretrial hearing, so Wayne County Circuit Judge Diane Hathaway ruled that the witness be considered unavailable. Prosecutors were allowed to read Stewart's previous testimony from the pretrial hearing into the record. The defense was not allowed to cross-examine Stewart. 

In February 2003, Clark and Harrington were convicted of first-degree murder.

Both men said prison life wasn't easy — but they each stressed that they never gave up hope that they'd be exonerated.

"You've got to take it one day at a time, and keep screaming at the top of your lungs," Harrington said. "You have to fight; if not, who's going to do it for you? To lay there on a hard bunk in a cage and just die — I wasn't going to do that."

Clark said his mother died three years after he was sentenced.

"I kept fighting for her," he said. "I knew that's what my mother would have wanted."

Harrington's appellate attorney in 2004 was able to get him a new trial because his defense attorney hadn't been allowed to cross-examine Stewart. Harrington endured three more trials, two of which ended in hung juries.

During the fourth trial, Harrington said prosecutors offered him a deal to plead guilty to manslaughter, and serve only four years. He says he turned it down.

"My mother told me to stand up for what I believe in," he said. "I said, 'you can kill me, because I'm not going to say I did something I didn't do.'" 

In January 2006, Harrington was again convicted of first-degree murder. He continued fighting to clear his name.

"I wrote letters to everyone," he said. "Through the course of 17 years, I talked to anyone I could — and it finally panned out."

The University of Michigan Innocence Clinic took up the case and filed multiple appeals and motions. Last year, the Conviction Integrity Unit agreed to investigate.

"In 2019 and 2020, the CIU conducted a six month investigation of the cases," prosecutors said in their April press release. "As a result, new witnesses and evidence were found in the case.

"The CIU found a disturbing pattern of behavior from the original lead detective that involved threatening and coercing a number of witnesses," the release said. "The CIU investigation has established that Mr. Harrington and Mr. Clark did not receive a fair trial as a result of the conduct of the original lead detective."

Harrington insisted what detectives did during the case "wasn't a mistake — a mistake is when you spill a cup of coffee," he said. "They tried to cover up a cover-up and got caught. Now, every case they were involved in needs to be reopened."

Mueller, who has handled several wrongful conviction lawsuits, said sending an innocent person to prison impacts more than the inmate.

"There's harm to the families, and harm to society, because the real murderer is free to commit more crimes," he said. "Most police work hard, but ... some people think they're above the law. We'll shine a light on their conduct, and hopefully this will send a message that people are not disposable."

Clark and Harrington last month were awarded $850,000 each under the 2016 Michigan Wrongful Imprisonment Compensation Act, which provides $50,000 for each year a wrongfully-convicted inmate spends in prison.

Since their release, both men said they've dedicated themselves to helping others. Harrington started a nonprofit called the Blessed and Highly Favored Foundation, and said he and Clark passed out more than 1,000 turkeys to Inkster residents before Thanksgiving.

Clark and Harrington also have distributed coats and toys to needy Inkster residents.

"We came back with the attitude that we're going to fix this community," said Harrington, who also started the Justice Group Consulting Firm to help people navigate legal issues. "I want to better mankind."

Clark said he feels the same compulsion.

"I have a moral obligation to try to lift humanity," he said. "... I'm just trying to pick up the pieces. I know I can't go backward and fix what happened, so I'm moving forward."

ghunter@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2134

Twitter: @GeorgeHunter_DN