By Kristy DemasAugust 2, 2018
Two clients, 26 Michigan Innocence Clinic (MIC) students, and more than seven years' work. These numbers tell the story of Justly Johnson and Kendrick Scott, co-defendants that the MIC successfully represented before the Michigan Supreme Court in its request for a new trial in the 1999 Mother's Day slaying of a woman.
Imran Syed, '11, a clinical professor of law and assistant director of Michigan Law's Innocence Clinic, led the team of student-attorneys, but also gives credit to the Wisconsin Innocence Project for its work supporting Johnson before the MIC took the case in 2011.
The defendants had been convicted of shooting and killing a woman in the early hours of the morning on the east side of Detroit. The woman, with her three children in the van, had driven to a dark street at her husband's request. She was told to wait in the van while he conducted business inside a nearby house. Tired of waiting, she knocked on the door of the house but was told by her husband to return to the van. As she was climbing inside the vehicle, she was fatally shot.
Johnson and Scott, along with two other men, were arrested as suspects—essentially because they were in the area at the time. After their arrest, all four were pressured by police to implicate one another—resulting in Johnson and Scott being charged and the other two men serving as witnesses. "This type of police activity was common in Detroit in the '90s and early 2000s," Syed explained, "and it resulted in a number of wrongful convictions."
In 2011, private investigator Scott Lewis tracked down the woman's oldest son. The man, who had been eight years old at the time of the shooting, had never been asked for his account of that night. He told Lewis he was sure he could identify the shooter. That's when Syed and two clinic students went to Pennsylvania to meet with him and conduct a photo lineup, during which he did not identify Johnson or Scott—offering new evidence for a new trial.
Syed said the team was denied hearings until 2014, when the Michigan Supreme Court ordered the lower court to conduct a hearing. After that hearing, even with the new evidence from the son's account, which excluded both men in court, and the addition of recantations from the two inculpatory witnesses, the trial court and the court of appeals still denied relief. However, after oral arguments in April 2018, the Michigan Supreme Court granted relief in a July 23 opinion.
The opinion found that the materiality of new evidence should be gauged by asking if a reasonable juror would find it credible, not if a specific judge would find it credible. Such evidence must be measured in the context of the rest of the case which, in this instance, creates a reasonable probability of a different outcome—even if it is not perfect. The victim's son's story was credible enough, the Court determined, to warrant presenting to a jury at a new trial.
The Court recognized that recantations are not inherently reliable, but noted that they must be evaluated in context of the full case. In this case, the Court found the recantations to be more reliable than the original inculpatory testimony. Finally, the Court found that prior recanting statements of unavailable witnesses are admissible upon retrial under the rules of evidence and the confrontation clause.
"The Michigan Supreme Court's opinion is very favorably written, and we hope it will help many others across Michigan and maybe beyond," said Syed. “The opinion is notable for recognizing the problems that are prevalent in criminal convictions in our country, but are so often overlooked by appellate courts."
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