On January 15, 2000, between 7:30 and 8:00 p.m., Geoffrey Stanka was robbed and shot to death while attempting to deliver pizza in Detroit, Michigan.
A witness, Jacklyn Barker told police that she heard a car pull up outside her home and hear a gunshot. She said she looked through her glass door and saw three men emerge from the victim’s car.
She told police she did not recognize any of the three men, but a day or two later, she admitted she knew the men from growing up in the neighborhood. Ultimately, she identified by name 18-year-old Chamar Avery and two other men, Recho Burns and Terrence Holmes. She failed, however, to pick them out of a lineup and in fact picked someone else, an individual who was never charged in the case.
Police alleged that the three men placed a phony pizza order as a ruse so that when Stanka arrived, they could rob him.
At a preliminary hearing in Wayne County Circuit Court, Barker said Avery got out of the passenger side of the car—which was facing away from her house and though it was dark outside and the car was in a shadow, she could see that he was smiling.
Avery and the two other men were charged with murder. Prior to trial, Avery told his lawyer, David Lankford, that he was 30 minutes away from the murder at the time it occurred, waiting for his car to be repaired at Crimes Towing and Auto Shop. He gave Lankford the names of John Crimes, Sr., LaVelle Crimes and Damar Crimes, 16, whom he said would vouch for his presence there.
Lankford sent an investigator who spoke with LaVelle Crimes, who said that Avery had been at the shop in the mid-afternoon and left with Damar, his brother, to go to the home of an acquaintance, Damion Boyd. He said Avery returned sometime after 9 p.m. The investigator said he left a card with a phone number and asked that Damion or Damar contact him. Neither of them did.
Avery went on trial in June 2007 before a jury. He was tried with Burns, but they had separate juries. Holmes’ trial was handled separately.
Barker’s testimony changed at trial. She testified that she had not seen Avery’s face and did not recognize him. When asked why she had changed her testimony, she said, “I don’t know.”
At the trial, Lankford decided not to present a defense and called no witnesses.
On June 28, 2000, Avery was convicted of second-degree murder and was sentenced to 20 to 50 years in prison. Burns was convicted of felony murder and sentenced to life in prison. Terrance Holmes pleaded guilty to armed robbery and was sentenced to 17 to 40 years in prison.
His appeal was remanded for a hearing on a claim of ineffective legal defense. At the hearing Damar Crimes testified that his father had told him an investigator had stopped by and had left a handwritten phone number on a piece of paper, but the number was not working when he called it.
Damar testified that if called at the trial, he would have testified that he was with Damion’s brother, Darius Boyd, and Avery at the time of the murder. He said they walked to the Boyd home about three blocks from the shop, leaving around 6 p.m. and remained there watching television until they were telephoned around 9 p.m. with the message that Avery’s car was ready to be picked up.
Darius Boyd testified and corroborated Damar Crimes’ and Avery’s account of his whereabouts at the time of the crime.
Lankford testified that he made a strategic decision not to call any witnesses because he was unsure what they “would say or how they would present.”
On October 8, 2002, the Michigan Court of Appeals affirmed Avery’s conviction, ruling that Lankford had made a “valid” strategic decision not to present a defense.
The Michigan Supreme Court denied Avery’s motion for leave to appeal.
On April 26, 2004, Avery’s attorneys filed a federal petition for a writ of habeas corpus. On November 8, 2007, U.S. District Judge Richard Alan Enslen in the Western District of Michigan overturned Avery’s conviction, ruling that Lankford had provided ineffective legal assistance in failing to track down Avery’s alibi witnesses.
Judge Enslen agreed with the argument of Avery’s lawyers that the “sequence of events shows just how unreasonable it was for a seasoned attorney like Lankford to leave it up to teenagers to get back in touch with him about important alibi evidence in a murder trial.”
On November 25, 2008, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit upheld the decision and ordered Avery to be retried or released. He was released on bond shortly thereafter pending a retrial.
The U.S. Supreme Court refused to review the case in late 2009, and the prosecution dismissed the charges in 2010.
– Maurice Possley