Finley: Detroit chief to help free wrongfully convicted

Nolan Finley
The Detroit News

Inmates languishing in Michigan prisons for crimes they didn’t commit have a better shot at freedom because of a commitment Detroit Police Chief James Craig is making to finding the truth.

Craig met this week with attorneys from the Innocence Clinic at the University of Michigan and pledged the full cooperation of his department in helping investigate wrongful conviction cases involving Detroiters.

Detroit Police Chief James Craig speaks on "Operation Green Light" during an interview March 2, 2017

That means requests for evidence will be expedited, detectives will help determine if crucial evidence still exists, police will assist with DNA and other testing and the cold case unit will help track down those who actually committed the crimes. Craig assigned Deputy Chief David LeValley of the detective bureau as liaison to the clinic.

“This is big,” says David Moran, head of the UM initiative that has already freed a half-dozen inmates who were wrongly convicted in Wayne County. “It could cut years off the process” of proving innocence.

Craig says he called the meeting in response to Detroit News coverage and commentary on the Wayne County cases, all of which took years to resolve even after compelling evidence surfaced that the wrong person had been sent to prison.

“This is a horror story,” Craig said, after hearing from Moran examples of both police and prosecutor bungling that led to bad convictions. “I’m always passionate about the victims of crime.

“But when someone is wrongly accused, I’m also passionate about getting to the truth.”

That passion for getting it right is what’s largely been missing in Wayne County, where the Innocence Clinic has several more clients it believes are serving time for crimes they didn’t do.

Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy has never acknowledged her office screwed up, even in those cases in which courts overturned the conviction. In every case, she stalled hearings and fought requests for new trials.

Her obstinance makes it harder and more expensive to determine whether the right people are behind bars.

Moran says while the clinic has in the past had a struggle with the Detroit Police Department, during Craig’s tenure the police department has been more cooperative. The new commitment by the chief will spare the clinic from having to file freedom of information (FOIA) requests for key pieces of evidence, and will lend it more investigative firepower.

The most significant impact is that it will allow Moran and his team of two attorneys and 26 students to more efficiently sort through the claims of innocence to find the ones most likely to be legitimate.

“The majority of cases get turned down because the evidence doesn’t support the claim,” says Bridget McCormack, who co-founded the clinic with Moran in 2009 and is now a justice of the Michigan Supreme Court.

“Police cooperation can cut down the resources it takes to process evidence.”

Since its founding, the clinic has taken just 40 of 5,000 cases brought to its attention.

Among the wrongful conviction claims it is currently pursuing, at least eight were investigated by the Detroit Police Department and prosecuted in Wayne County. They include:

■Karl Vinson, who was convicted of first-degree criminal sexual conduct with a 9-year-old girl in 1986. The clinic says Vinson should have been excluded as the rapist because his blood type did not match the physical evidence found at the crime scene. A Detroit Police blood expert agrees the evidence clears Vinson, and yet a state court upheld his conviction and the clinic is now seeking relief in the federal courts.

■Richard Phillips, who was convicted, along with co-defendant Richard Palombo, of the murder of Gregory Harris in 1971, on the basis of testimony of the victim’s brother-in-law. Seven years ago, Palombo told the parole board that he and the brother-in-law killed Harris, and that he didn’t even know Phillips at the time. The case is pending in Wayne County Circuit Court.

■Desmond Ricks, who was convicted for the 1992 murder of his friend, Gerry Bennett, outside a Detroit restaurant. The case against Ricks was built on ballistics evidence, which the Innocence Clinic has strong reason to believe was falsified. The expert who tested the bullets suspects he was given bullets that were test fired from the suspect’s gun, rather than the ones removed from the victim’s body. The Michigan State Police crime lab is investigating the claim.

Craig says his interest extends beyond simply freeing the innocent. He also wants to know if Detroit officers intentionally tampered with evidence.

“If we have the wrong person in custody, we can deal with a mistake,” he says. “We can’t accept a purposeful act.”

Craig’s other priority is to bring to justice those who actually committed the crimes. In two current examples in Wayne County, Worthy has not filed charges against individuals whom the evidence suggests did the crimes for which others were convicted.

Vincent Smothers, the hit man who confessed to quadruple homicide for which 14-year-old Davontae Sanford spent nine years in prison, and the man Smothers identified as his accomplice still have not been charged. Sanford was freed last fall.

Nor has a Pennsylvania man whose bloody fingerprints were on a toilet tank cover that was used to kill a 12-year-old Detroit girl. Lamarr Monson, who was locked up for more than 20 years for the murder, was granted a new trial in January and released.

In a letter to The Detroit News last week, Worthy wrote, “We are often criticized for the time it takes to charge a case. That is because we want to make sure that we have done everything to make sure we have a case we can prove beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Craig says that justice not only demands the release of the innocently accused, but also the prosecution of the guilty.

“If a person is exonerated, that means the person responsible is still at large,” the chief says. “We have an obligation to run with the new evidence.

“My goal in all of this is to get to the truth.”