Michigan man freed from prison after Wayne County judge sets aside convictions

Oralandar Brand-Williams
The Detroit News

A Detroit man behind bars for two life sentences without parole in the deaths of two children was granted his freedom Thursday by a Wayne County judge.

Judge Bruce Morrow at a hearing at 1 p.m. Thursday vacated the convictions and sentences and dismissed all charges against Kenneth Nixon. Nixon, 34, had spent more than 15 years behind bars in the deaths of a 1-year-old and 10-year-old in a Detroit fire in 2005. 

Kenneth Nixon raises his arms after being released from the Michigan Reformatory in Ionia.

Less than two hours later, Nixon, a freed man, was met by family members at his release from the Michigan Reformatory in Ionia.

 "I feel relieved," said Nixon during the ride back to Detroit to join his 18-year-old and 16-year-old sons and other family members.  "I knew the day was coming. I just didn't know how or when but I knew this day would get here."

Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy's Conviction Integrity Unit sought the dismissal because of doubts that surfaced during a review of his conviction that Nixon was responsible for the fire in May 2005 that claimed the lives of the two siblings, Tamyah Vaughn 1, and Raylord McCulley, 10.

The fire started after a Molotov cocktail was thrown into a home in the 19420 block of Charleston. The children, along with their mother and their 13-year-old brother, were in the home.

Nixon was 18 when hereceived two life sentences after testimony from an alleged jailhouse informant. Nixon's girlfriend at the time, LaToya Caulford, also was charged in the case, accused of driving Nixon to the house. She was acquitted.

“What is highly suspect here is the use of a jail informant by a homicide officer to gain a 'confession,' " Worthy said in a statement Wednesday. "The informant testified that he had no knowledge of the case from watching TV to bolster his credibility.

"Years later, he admitted that before Mr. Nixon allegedly confessed to him, the informant had seen details of the case on television. These and other issues support the grant of relief to Mr. Nixon."

Kenneth Nixon hugs his mother after being released from prison after 16 years.

Among its findings, the Conviction Integrity Unit found that the 13-year-old brother made "inconsistent" statements to authorities about the fire.There also was an "inference" that because the 13-year-old’s statements were inconsistent, a homicide officer turned to the jail house informant.

It also found that Nixon was with Caulford at a home in the 19300 block of Havana in Detroit when the crime occurred.

Valerie Newman, the director of the Conviction Integrity Unit, said the integrity of Nixon's conviction had been undermined and if the case were tried today, there was a "reasonable probability" that he would not be convicted .

Newman said a "significant" number of police officers involved in the case are on the prosecutor's "Giglio list" of 51 Wayne County law enforcement officers whose testimony and truthfulness have been called into question.

Naomi Vaughn, the mother of the children, objected to the dismissals of the convictions, begging Morrow "... Don't let him go" and "If anything, it should be a retrial. This is so unfair. God knows the truth." 

The judge said he understood Vaughn's pain and he had believed that "justice was served" when he sentenced Nixon nearly 16 years ago, but he now believed he was "mistaken" about the the fairness of thetrial. 

The judge told Vaughn that "furthering injustice is not the way to deal with" her pain of losing her children and to accept that the case has a new outcome.

"Justice for Mr. Nixon has finally been achieved," said Morrow.

Nixon declined to speak during the hearing.

He said later he plans to go to college to study law and journalism, and become involved in working to help free others behind bars through work at an innocence projects like the one that helped him.

Kenneth Nixon (center) with WMU-Cooley Innocence Project team members. Pictured (left-right) Tracey Brame, Innocence Project director; Lori Montgomery; Nixon; David Williams, staff attorney; Matthew Smith, team member.

"I want to be part of an innocence clinic to be able to give back," said Nixon.

His attorneys from the WMU-Cooley Law School Innocence Project said they believed in Nixon's innocence. The Innocence Project began reviewing the case in 2016 before accepting it in 2018,when it contacted the Wayne County Prosecutor's Office.

“Mr. Nixon has worked tirelessly over the last 15 years to regain his freedom," said attorney, David Williams. "Thanks to Mr. Nixon’s persistence and the collaboration between the WMU-Cooley Innocence Project and the Wayne County Conviction Integrity Unit, Mr. Nixon will finally be reunited with his loved ones."

The Conviction Integrity Unit has helped with exonerations and dismissals of convictions for 28 Michigan inmates in the past three years, said the Conviction Integrity Unit's Newman.

Local civil rights attorney Wolfgang Mueller plans to file to seek compensation from the state in Nixon's wrongful conviction.

"This is a tragic case, compounded by a wrongful conviction," Mueller said. "But the only way to improve the system is to right the wrongs when they occur. And justice was done today."