Detroit man walks free from Michigan prison, life sentence after 48 years in plea deal
When Raymond Felton Gray was sent to prison for life on a murder conviction in 1973, platform shoes were the fashion rage and Watergate scandal-plagued President Richard Nixon was still in office.
On Tuesday, Gray became a free man following a plea deal that allowed him to plead no contest to a lesser murder charge.
The court hearing in which a judge ordered him freed was held virtually, offering a glimpse of how technology has grown by leaps and bounds in the nearly five decades since Gray entered Michigan's prison system.
Gray, 69, has been incarcerated since May 1973 after he was convicted of first-degree murder for the slaying of a reputed Detroit drug dealer, Ruben Bryant, in a Detroit apartment months earlier.
The former Detroit resident, who was hoping for an exoneration, spent 48 years behind Michigan prison walls. He has tried for years to appeal the conviction.
"It's a happy day," Gray said minutes before taking off his glasses and breaking down in tears during the hearing in which he appeared via video feed from the Muskegon Correctional Facility in Muskegon. "Sometimes justice is blind. Sometimes justice is hard of hearing. This time the system worked."
Hours later, he walked out of the prison a free man.
Gray's wife Barbara Rinehart-Gray was among those who met him as he carried his belongings out a prison door.
"We've been through many disappointments, so until they released him today, we were always expecting something to go wrong," she said.
Gray's nephew and namesake Raymond Gray was among the family members who met Gray at the prison doors on Tuesday.
"I'm just going to spend as much time with him as I can..." his nephew said.
'He has served enough time'
Bryant was murdered on Feb. 6, 1973 during a robbery in which three women were present but unharmed. A witness in the case, Marie Clark, has been steadfast in her testimony that Gray murdered Bryant, Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy's office said. On Tuesday, her remarks "adamantly" opposing Gray's release were read during the hearing.
"She's confident that it was Ray that was in that apartment and shot Ruben Bryant and also pointed the gun at her," said Wayne County Prosecutor's Office Conviction Integrity Unit Director Valerie Newman.
Marvin Bryant, Ruben Bryant's brother, said in comments read by Newman during the hearing that even if Gray did murder his brother, he has served enough time and should be released.
"Marvin Bryant says, of course, he misses his brother terribly and had missed the opportunity to grow up with him and grow old with him. He also thinks that Mr. Gray, even if he was the perpetrator, has done more than enough time and ... he supports Mr. Gray's release," Newman said.
Gray was sentenced on May 11, 1973, for Bryant's murder. Under the no contest plea accepted Tuesday by Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Margaret Van Houten, Gray's original conviction is vacated. He pleaded no contest Tuesday to second-degree murder, and Van Houten sentenced him to 25-40 years, with credit for 17,604 days, or more than 48 years, served.
A no contest plea is not an admission of guilt but is treated as such at sentencing. In addition, a no contest plea cannot be entered as an admission of liability in a civil lawsuit.
Worthy explained her decision in a press release.
“Given the passage of time, the ensuing inability to substantiate the claim of innocence, eyewitness Marie Clark’s trial identification testimony and her recent interview identifying Ray Gray as one of the two robbers, this is not an exoneration.
"However, this case does present many questions that cannot be answered. Given the amount of time served and the possibility of innocence, we agreed to allow Mr. Gray to enter a no contest plea to second-degree murder with a sentence agreement to time served. ... We wish him well.”
"I think he's innocent," said Gray's attorney, Gabi Silver, who added she filed a motion in March for a new trial. "We didn't have the ability to corroborate (his innocence.) At the end of the day, he's coming home."
Silver said Gray is "shocked" and "speechless" that he's being released years after fighting for his freedom.
He and Barbara married while he was incarcerated, and his release is something that "he's been hoping and praying for," Silver said.
"Now he's at the doorstep," the defense attorney added after the hearing.
In court Tuesday, Silver said Gray will now get to have a life with Barbara.
"This has been a long time coming," Silver said. "This has been a case that has been in the court system on numerous occasions for probably 45 years at this point. I worked on this case 15 years ago. I'm really grateful and happy for Ray. He will get to have some life in the world with his family ... his wife."
While he's gained his freedom, Gray will not be able to receive funds for individuals who were wrongfully convicted, according to attorney Wolf Mueller, who has worked with several exonerated former prisoners to get money from Michigan's Wrongful Imprisonment Compensation Act.
"Unfortunately, Mr. Gray's plea deal will make him ineligible for compensation from the state because he doesn't meet the requirement of criminal charges being dismissed," Mueller said. "But the most important thing is that he will not die in prison and can now try to rebuild his life."
Gray was working as a barber when he was sent away to prison.
Silver said she knows Gray as a "quiet man" and an artist who likes to paint.
Van Houten told Gray "Good luck to you, sir" as the hearing neared an end.
A few hours later outside the prison, standing with his sister Phyllis Long, niece Kenyata Curtis, Barbara and nephew Raymond, Gray had a few simple requests: "I want to go to Red Lobster. I love fish.
"And I want to go to the art store."
Freelance photographer Chris duMond contributed.