On September 15, 1958, two men held up Snyder’s Service station in Oak Park, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit. According to station attendant Jack O’Kee, one of the robbers held a rusty revolver, and the two men escaped in a 1951 Mercury with $116. The station had been previously robbed, also while O’Kee was working, and O’Kee told police that the same men committed both robberies.
Nine days later, police in Berrien County, Michigan, stopped a 1951 Mercury for a minor traffic violation. Thomas Keith and William Magee, Jr. were in the car. Police searched the car and located a rusty revolver under the front seat. They brought Keith, who was 27 years old, and Magee, who was 23 years old, to the police station in St. Joseph for questioning. O’Kee came and viewed a lineup and identified Keith as the gunman and Magee as his accomplice. O’Kee also identified Keith’s black cloth jacket as the jacket worn by the gunman. Keith and Magee were each charged with armed robbery in the September 15, 1958 holdup.
Keith and Magee, both of whom maintained their innocence, were tried jointly in Oakland County Circuit Court before Judge William John Beer. On February 7, 1959, the jury found both men guilty of armed robbery. Beer sentenced Magee to three to six years in prison and Keith, who was in violation of his parole, to six to 11 years.
In prison, Keith and Magee each told their assigned prison counselor that they were innocent, and the counselor contacted John J. Spencer, Michigan’s assistant director of penal institutions. After meeting with Keith and Magee, Spencer assigned investigator Wilbur M. Peterman to look into their case. Peterman, a retired police lieutenant, administered polygraph examinations to Keith and Magee and found that their responses did not indicate deception.
Peterman interviewed Harold Combs, Keith’s cousin, who said he and Keith met Magee outside a restaurant on September 21, 1958 – six days after the robbery – and that meeting was the first time Magee and Keith had seen each other in four years. Peterman interviewed another cousin of Keith’s, Robert Young. Young told Peterman that he had given the revolver found in Keith’s car to Keith on September 23, 1959 – the day before Keith’s car was stopped in Berrien County. Young said he had purchased the gun from a friend, knowing it was stolen, and had given it to Keith to clean and sell. Young signed an affidavit with this information. Young had not testified at the trial because of concerns about the gun being stolen property, so the jury was not told of the date on which Keith obtained the gun or the reason it was in his car. Peterman also learned that Keith was in prison in Indiana at the time of the first robbery of the service station, so he could not have participated in that robbery despite O’Kee saying that the same two robbers committed both robberies.
Based on these findings, Peterman and the attorneys representing Magee and Keith contacted the prosecutor, who spoke again with O’Kee. In this discussion, O’Kee described being held up by a right-handed gunman, while Keith was left-handed. O’Kee’s new statements included other discrepancies. He now said the gunman wore a black leather, rather than cloth, jacket. He said the gunman’s accomplice had worn dark-tinted glasses, but according to prison officials, Magee was extremely near-sighted and would be unable to see in dark glasses. The prosecutor contacted Judge Beer and joined in the defense attorneys’ motion for a new trial for Keith and Magee.
On October 12, 1959, Beer granted the motion and then dismissed the charges against Keith and Magee, who were released from prison two days later.
The National Registry of Exonerations is a project of the Newkirk Center for Science & Society at University of California Irvine, the University of Michigan Law School and Michigan State University College of Law. It was founded in 2012 in conjunction with the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law. The Registry provides detailed information about every known exoneration in the United States since 1989—cases in which a person was wrongly convicted of a crime and later cleared of all the charges based on new evidence of innocence. The Registry also maintains a more limited database of known exonerations prior to 1989.
We welcome new information from any source about exonerations already on our list and about cases not in the Registry that might be exonerations.