Sept. 5, 2014
In three days, Jamie Lee Peterson can eat whatever he'd like. He's had 17 years to think about it, and he has decided on this: a Fudgsicle.
Peterson's ability to choose his own snacks is one aspect of a much greater freedom: He has been cleared by a new round of DNA testing that was championed by a group of attorneys and students from law school wrongful conviction projects at the University of Michigan Law School and the Northwestern University School of Law in Chicago. The exoneration is the ninth final victory and eighth exoneration in the five-year history of the Michigan Innocence Clinic at the University of Michigan Law School.
Peterson had been in custody for more than 17 years after being convicted of the sexual assault and murder of 68-year-old Geraldine Montgomery in the small northwest Michigan town of Kalkaska. On Friday (Sept. 5, 2014), the Kalkaska prosecutor announced he will drop all charges against Peterson on Monday (Sept. 8, 2014).
Caitlin Plummer, Michigan Law Class of 2011 and one of Peterson's attorneys, explained that the announcement is not due to some legal technicality.
"Let me make this crystal clear," Plummer said. "Jamie Lee Peterson is absolutely 100 percent innocent of this crime. He had no involvement. He knows nothing about it. The tragedy of this heinous crime was compounded by the wrongful conviction of an innocent man."
The cause of this wrongful conviction was a series of false confessions Peterson gave during police interrogations four months after the murder. Despite knowing that DNA testing of the victim's rape kit excluded Peterson as the source of the vaginal rape, the jury convicted Peterson at a 1998 trial. They were persuaded by the confessions and the State's argument that then-untestable male DNA found on the collar of the victim's shirt likely belonged to Peterson.
New DNA testing was conducted last year at the urging of Peterson's new attorneys and with the cooperation of the Kalkaska prosecutor and the Michigan State police. This testing proved that the male DNA on the victim's shirt was not Peterson's and belonged to the same person as the DNA in the rape kit. All of the male DNA at the crime scene matched a man named Jason Ryan, who was arrested last fall and is awaiting trial on murder and sexual assault charges. Ryan has pleaded not guilty. A year-long re-investigation conducted by the Michigan State police has revealed no credible evidence that Peterson or Ryan ever knew each other.
Despite the new DNA results and arrest of a different suspect, the Kalkaska prosecutor previously had objected to releasing Peterson. On Aug. 14, 2014, however, in a 23-page written opinion, Kalkaska County Circuit Court Judge Janet Allen relied on the new DNA evidence and ordered a new trial for Peterson. She found the evidence "clear and convincing" that Peterson would not be convicted if he were retried in light of the new DNA evidence. With today's announcement, that retrial won't happen.
Lisa Kirsch Satawa, a Birmingham-based attorney from the law firm of Clark Hill PLC, and James Samuels of the Samuels Law Office, had recently signed on to handle Peterson's retrial. Kirsch Satawa echoed Plummer's statements regarding Peterson's innocence.
"These were obvious false confessions from the get-go," Kirsch Satawa said. "The investigating police interrogated when they should have investigated. They found an easy target in Mr. Peterson, got his confession, and ignored the overwhelming evidence that the confession was false."
While it may be difficult to understand how someone would ever confess to a crime they did not commit, there is indisputable evidence that it happens at a troublingly frequent pace. Earlier this week, two North Carolina brothers convicted of the 1983 brutal rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl were released after 30 years in prison when DNA proved they were innocent and their confessions were false.
A database of wrongful convictions created by the University of Michigan and Northwestern law schools known as the National Registry of Exonerations highlights 180 exoneration cases where the convicted individual falsely confessed. The young and cognitively impaired are even more susceptible to false confession during police interrogations.
Peterson becomes the fourth man in Michigan exonerated by DNA evidence. Two of the other three—Nathaniel Hatchett (Macomb County) and Eddie Joe Lloyd (Wayne County)—also falsely confessed to police.
"This case should serve as a wake-up call to the Michigan criminal justice community," said David Moran, director of the Michigan Innocence Clinic and one of Peterson's attorneys. "All law enforcement agencies need to ensure that their officers get training not just on how to interrogate, but on how to identify and prevent false confessions."
While the initial investigation was flawed, attorneys for Peterson commended the Michigan State police for the recent re-investigation.
"I've been involved in several of these cases," said Joshua Tepfer, Peterson's Chicago-based attorney from Northwestern Law's Center on Wrongful Convictions. "This is by far the most thorough and comprehensive police re-investigation that I have seen. When we approached them last year, the MSP immediately recognized that retesting the DNA was a no-brainer. They recorded many of their subsequent interviews and shared the recordings with us. The results of the re-investigation speak for themselves and prove our client's innocence."
The Michigan Innocence Clinic and Northwestern's Center on Wrongful Convictions are law school clinical programs where students assist in the representation of clients.
A.J. Dixon, now a Chicago-based attorney, worked on the case as a University of Michigan law student.
"I wanted to be a lawyer to seek justice and help people," Dixon said. "Getting the chance to play such a significant role in correcting a miscarriage of justice as a law student really is a dream come true."
Photo top right: Jamie Lee Peterson leaves jail Sept. 8, 2014, following his exoneration. Photo bottom left: Caitlin Plummer, '11, stands with Jamie Lee Peterson's parents following his final court appearance Sept. 5, 2014.
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