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Ledura Watkins

Other Wayne County Exonerations with Official Misconduct
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On June 15, 2017, 61-year-old Ledura Watkins, convicted of murder in 1976 in Detroit, Michigan, was released after his conviction was vacated and the charge dismissed. He served 41 years and three months in prison—the longest time spent incarcerated after conviction by any wrongfully convicted defendant prior to exoneration.

The case began with the murder of 25-year-old Evette Ingram, a public school teacher who also was a drug dealer. Ingram was fatally shot in the head in her home in Detroit, Michigan on September 6, 1975.

On October 21, 1975, police in Highland Park, Michigan, a small city located within the boundary of Detroit, arrested Travis Herndon on an unrelated charge of robbery. Herndon told police that he had information about the Ingram murder.

Herndon was turned over to Detroit police. In his initial statement, he said that 19-year-old Ledura Watkins committed the crime. He later gave another statement saying that he and Watkins went to Ingram’s home at the behest of Gary Vazana, a corrupt Highland Park police officer known for dealing drugs. That same day that Herndon began talking to police, Vazana was found murdered in his home.

Herndon said that Vazana lent him and Watkins his service revolver and car. Vazana instructed them to kill Ingram, take whatever drugs they could find in her home, and sell them. All three would split the proceeds. Herndon said that Watkins shot Ingram after they got the drugs.

The following day, on October 22, 1975, Watkins was arrested and charged with first-degree murder.

Watkins went to trial in Wayne County Circuit Court in March 1976. Herndon testified that he and Watkins met Vazana in a motel where Vazana gave them instructions and the gun. Herndon told the jury that he and Watkins forced their way into Ingram’s home at gunpoint. Watkins then took the gun from him and took Ingram upstairs. After Ingram told them where she had hidden drugs, Herndon gathered them.

Herndon testified that upon Watkins’s order, he held pillows over Ingram’s head and Watkins shot her twice through the pillows. They took the marijuana they had found, along with three rings and some cash. They drove back to the motel, where they gave the drugs and gun to Vazana. Herndon kept the rings and the cash. Herndon said that the following day, he gave two of the rings and half of the cash to Watkins. He pawned the third ring and sold the pawn ticket.

Herndon admitted during cross-examination that he had done drugs with Vazana and sold drugs for him over the past five years. He also admitted that he had broken into and robbed the home of Watkins’s mother a few days before Ingram’s murder.

Herndon testified that the prosecution had granted him immunity from any crime related to the murder. He denied that he had received any other favorable treatment in return for his testimony against Watkins.

The only physical evidence linking Watkins to the crime was a single hair that police said they found on Ingram’s clothing. Detroit police officer Ronald Badaczewski testified that there was no date on his report, but that he received the hair on October 30, 1976—nearly two months after the murder. He said he could not remember when the hair was collected from Ingram’s pants. The hair was microscopically similar to a hair from Watkins—there were 15 points of similarity, Badaczewski testified. He told the jury his opinion was based on “reasonable scientific certainty.”

Detroit Police Sgt. Neil Schwartz, the lead investigator on the case, testified that Herndon had given a consistent statement about his role in the murder. During cross-examination, Schwartz said that he became certain that Herndon did not shoot Ingram after Herndon agreed to take a polygraph.

The defense attempted to call Michael Miller as a witness to impeach Herndon, contending that Miller would testify that Herndon sold him one of the rings. However, Miller invoked his Fifth Amendment protection from self-incrimination and refused to testify. The defense requested that Miller be granted immunity—as Herndon was—but the prosecution refused.

Watkins testified and denied involvement in the crime. He said he had known Vazana for about five years, but only as an honest police officer and did not know Vazana was involved in drugs. Watkins said he had met Ingram through her cousin, and that he had purchased drugs from Ingram in the past. Watkins said he knew Herndon and had introduced Herndon to Ingram.

On March 16, 1976, the jury convicted Watkins of first-degree murder and he was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

In 1980, after the Michigan Court of Appeals affirmed his conviction, Watkins filed a post-conviction petition for relief citing a recantation by Herndon, who said that his testimony was false. During evidentiary hearings held in 1980 and 1981, Herndon testified that his testimony was false and that Watkins had no involvement in the crime. Herndon testified that when Schwartz, the lead investigator, told him that Vazana had been found dead, he told Schwartz that he and Vazana had committed the murder.

Herndon also said that Schwartz and the prosecutor, Robert Healey, intervened on his behalf with both the judge who heard his robbery case and with prison officials after he was sentenced to prison. Healey also testified at the hearing that he and Schwartz spoke with the judge who was handling Herndon’s case and “told him of Travis Herndon’s cooperation with us.”

The result of Herndon’s polygraph—which Schwartz had implied during his testimony showed that Herndon was truthful—was presented. The examiner had concluded that Herndon’s “truthfulness cannot be verified and he cannot be cleared in this matter.”

Watkins’s petition for a new trial was denied, despite the admission that Herndon had received favorable treatment, which was not disclosed to the defense at Watkins’s trial. In fact, the prosecution and Herndon had denied such favorable treatment at the trial.

Watkins continued to fight for records in his case. In 2009, he received 345 pages from a “miscellaneous” homicide file at the Detroit police department, and was told there were no other reports. In 2012, however, the Thomas M. Cooley School of Law Innocence Project, which had begun investigating Watkins’s case, received four pages of crime lab report, and in January 2017, a seven-page lab report.

The miscellaneous homicide file contained a report showing that Herndon first told police that Watkins acted alone—information that should have been disclosed to the defense because it could have been used to attack Herndon’s account at trial that he was with Watkins when Ingram was murdered. The file also contained a list of possible suspects in the murder, including a man who had threatened a friend of Evette Ingram after Ingram’s murder. That suspect had taken a polygraph examination and the results indicated that he was untruthful.

The Cooley Innocence Project team also discovered a letter written by the prosecutor to Michigan Department of Corrections officials seeking favorable treatment for Herndon because of his cooperation in the Ingram murder and in several unrelated robbery cases.

In 2013, the FBI reported that testimony claiming that microscopic hair comparison could produce a “match” between two hairs was scientifically invalid. The FBI, the Department of Justice, the Innocence Project, and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers began a review of FBI analysts’ testimony and reports. They determined that analysts had provided erroneous testimony or reports in more than 90 percent of the cases reviewed by 2017. The analyst who testified in Watkins’s case was not part of that review, which includes only FBI analysts.

In January 2017, the Cooley Innocence Project filed another petition for post-conviction relief, citing the undisclosed police and laboratory reports, Herndon’s recantation, the failure of the prosecution and police to disclose favorable treatment, as well as the unreliable hair analysis as support for granting Watkins a new trial.

On June 15, 2017, the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office joined in supporting the motion. Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Bruce Morrow vacated Watkins’s conviction. The prosecution then dismissed the charge.

“After investigating the case the prosecution agreed with the defense that the trial testimony regarding hair analysis given in 1976 was flawed evidence under the 2016 revised FBI standards for hair comparison,” the prosecution said in a statement. “Finding that there insufficient evidence for a retrial, today the Wayne County Prosecutor's Office dismissed the case against Ledura Watkins.”

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 6/29/2017
State:Michigan
County:Wayne
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:1975
Convicted:1976
Exonerated:2017
Sentence:Life without parole
Race:Black
Sex:Male
Age at the date of crime:19
Contributing Factors:False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No