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Ramon Ward

Other Wayne County, MIchigan exonerations with false confessions
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On January 25, 1994, the bodies of two sex workers were found fatally shot in an abandoned building in the 4700 block of Moran Street in Detroit, Michigan. The women, 31-year-old Sharon Cornell and 42-year-old Joan Gilliam, were each shot once in the head.

Police arrested 18-year-old Ramon Ward on April 20, 1994. Ward’s cousin, Jimmie Stancil, had told Detroit police detectives that Ward had admitted to him that he used Cornell to lure Gilliam to the building under the guise of engaging in prostitution, but in fact Ward wanted to rob Gilliam of her Social Security benefit check, rumored to be nearly $8,000. According to Stancil’s statement—which he later recanted, saying he lied after he was threatened with being charged with the murders—Ward shot Cornell when she began screaming.

Ward was charged with both first-degree murders, armed robbery, and illegal use of a firearm.

In January 1995, Ward went to trial in Wayne County Recorder’s Court. Stancil was called as a witness and recanted his statement to police implicating Ward. His original statement was then introduced to the jury. It included a statement that Ward had, at times, been known to carry a .380-caliber handgun. Although no gun was ever found, two .380-caliber shell casings were found at the scene of the crime.

Lenora Butchee testified that she was Gilliam’s caretaker and that she lived with Gilliam in a two-story house. Ward and his girlfriend also lived in the house for a while. Butchee said that Gilliam’s monthly Social Security check was $460, not $8,000.

She said that before the murders, Ward had accused Gilliam of stealing a handgun from him and that she had promised to reimburse him $90 for it.

Joe Twilley, who was in the jail in the Detroit police station when Ward was first arrested, testified that Ward told him that he had told police that he saw the murders while looking through a window, but that the police didn’t believe him. Twilley said that Ward then admitted that he had killed both women. Twilley denied receiving any benefits for his testimony.

The jury also heard the testimony given by Oliver Cowan at a preliminary hearing in 1994. The testimony was read to the jurors because Cowan died a few days prior to Ward’s trial. In the testimony, Cowan, who also was in the police station jail, said that he was present with Twilley when Ward admitted committing the murders. Cowan also denied receiving any benefits for his testimony.

Detroit police detective Monica Childs testified that she took the statement from Stancil and then dispatched detectives to arrest Ward. She said that during initial questioning, Ward said he was watching through a window when he saw Gilliam get shot and that he then fled. She told the jury that she told Ward she believed he was lying and sent him back to the jail. The following day, she said, Twilley came to her and said that Ward had admitted the crime.

She said she had Ward brought back to her for further questioning. Ultimately, Childs said that Ward admitted he killed the women, but wanted the statement to say the shooting was in self-defense. “He said, ‘Yes, they wasn’t nothing but some whores,’” Childs testified.

She said Ward said, “I don’t want to say I killed them because I don’t want it to look like it was cold blooded murder. Can’t you just say it was self-defense—they was trying to rob me, take my dope?”

Childs said that when she told him she was “not going to cooperate with a lie that he was going to tell,” Ward refused to sign the statement she had typed up. Childs denied that she fabricated the statement.

During a pre-trial hearing on a motion to bar the prosecution from introducing the confession at trial, Ward had testified that he never admitted to the crime to Twilley, Cowan, or Childs. However, Ward did not testify at the trial.

On January 26, 1995 the jury convicted Ward of one count of felony murder and one count of second-degree murder and illegal use of a firearm. At sentencing, Ward maintained his innocence and said he hoped that the real perpetrators would someday be brought to justice. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

In 2003, an evidentiary hearing was held on a defense motion for a new trial claiming that Twilley, Cowan, and others who were in the police station jail were given special privileges, including conjugal visits from girlfriends, marijuana and alcohol, as well as reduced charges for cooperating in investigations. Twilley, according to one police officer, had testified as a prosecution witness in as many as 20 murder trials. A witness who said he had testified in three such cases said police fed him details so that he could then testify that defendants had admitted their crimes during jailhouse conversations.

However, the motion was denied.

In 2010, Ward filed a federal habeas petition seeking to overturn his conviction, but the petition was denied.

In 2019, Ward’s attorney, John Smietanka, asked the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office Conviction Integrity Unit to review the case because a witness who was present when the crime was committed came forward and said that Ward was not involved.

On February 20, 2020, Assistant Prosecutor Valerie Newman, head of the Conviction Integrity Unit, asked that Ward’s convictions be vacated. Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Donald Knapp granted the motion and the charges were dismissed.

“Mr. Ward served over half of his life in prison for crimes he did not commit,” Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy said in a statement. “His case was disturbing on several levels, and our intensive investigation showed that he is certainly entitled to the relief we requested today. We remain committed to thoroughly reviewing all CIU cases and will support Mr. Ward’s anticipated state claim for relief under the Wrongful Imprisonment Compensation Act.”

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 3/23/2020
Last Updated: 6/8/2020
State:Michigan
County:Wayne
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Illegal Use of a Weapon
Reported Crime Date:1994
Convicted:1995
Exonerated:2020
Sentence:Life without parole
Race:Black
Sex:Male
Age at the date of reported crime:18
Contributing Factors:False Confession, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No