When he was tricked into signing what turned out to be a murder confession, Lamarr Monson was told he'd be back home within a day. After 21 years in prison, it finally happened, following a ruling to grant him a new trial. Monson was convicted in 1997 of the murder of 12-year-old Christina Brown in Detroit. On Jan. 30, Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Shannon Walker tossed out his conviction and ordered a new trial, which is set for April 24.
Monson's attorneys at the Michigan Innocence Clinic at Michigan Law moved to overturn his conviction in 2015, three years after a woman walked into a Detroit police station and revealed that her ex-boyfriend had committed the murder of Christina Brown. Three years later, the Clinic learned that a fingerprint matching that same suspect had been found on a toilet tank lid, which the medical examiner and the trial prosecutor both identified as the likely murder weapon.
In addition to the witness statement and the fingerprint evidence included in the original motion, the Innocence Clinic found additional evidence that vindicates Monson. "There have been several jaw-dropping moments as we've investigated this case," said David Moran, '91, director of the Clinic.
In September, Moran and two of his students, Damayanti Desai and Tyler Vivian, inspected the toilet tank lid and noticed a fingerprint, apparently in blood, that was at the same place on the lid as a bloody splotch visible on the lid in photos taken at the crime scene. The fingerprint was not one of the two prints previously lifted from the lid. The Clinic submitted photographs of the newly discovered print to the Detroit Police Department's latent print examiner, who then testified that Monson is excluded from being the source of the bloody print.
As a result of this discovery, the Wayne County Prosecutor's Office and the Clinic agreed to send the toilet tank lid to the Michigan State Police Crime Lab to see if any additional prints could be found. When the Michigan State Police Forensic Science Unit reviewed never-before-tested finger-and thumbprints from the toilet tank lid, all seven of the new prints, most of which were in blood, matched the same person identified as the killer by the woman who went to the police in 2012 (and testified in September 2015). None of the prints matched Lamarr Monson.
"When the fingerprint report came back and it was clear we had a real shot of proving Mr. Monson's innocence, the sheer weight of that evidence in our hands was almost overwhelming," said Desai, a 2L. "It felt like we could ground our hopes in something physical."
The murder of Christina Brown in 1996 sent shockwaves through the city because of the brutality of the killing and the girl's young age. A runaway, the 12-year-old Brown convinced her new neighbors in a partially burned-out apartment building that she was 17. She and Monson both sold drugs from one of the apartments.
Monson entered the apartment on the afternoon of January 20, 1996, to find a bloody scene, and he ran to neighbors' apartments to call 911. Police initially believed the death was caused by stabbing. Monson became their prime suspect.
Under an interrogation supervised by Lt. Joan Ghougoian, Monson was told that if he went along with an "information summary" and signed it, he "would be at home by this time tomorrow" and he "would probably get out on personal bond," but "right now you are arrested, you are held under Murder I." Monson maintains that he did not provide the information contained in the statement that he signed, nor did he realize that it was a confession when he signed the form, according to the Michigan Innocence Clinic's 2015 motion for relief from judgment. On March 7, 1997, after a three-day jury trial, Monson was convicted of one count of second-degree murder. He was sentenced to 30 to 50 years in prison, which he was serving at Gus Harrison Correctional Facility in Adrian, Michigan, until his Feb. 1 release.
Ghougoian, meanwhile, was accused of routinely violating the rights of suspects by promising that they could go home in return for confessions, the motion points out. She was under investigation for illegal promises in at least a half-dozen murder cases, and she was removed from the homicide unit in April 1997.
In the extracted confession, Monson supposedly said that he killed Brown by stabbing her, which police believed at the time to be the cause of death. The medical examiner later determined that the actual cause was a massive head injury—rendering the extracted confession from Monson inaccurate. Brown was also strangled, stabbed, and cut. She apparently had been beaten with the porcelain toilet tank lid that had been found, covered in blood, on the floor of the apartment not far from her body.
The Michigan Innocence Clinic began investigating Monson's case in 2011, and although Desai and Vivian were able to be part of their client's release, they know that years of teamwork made the moment possible. "The defining moment for me was working to put the closing brief together," said Vivian, a 3L. "A lot of student-attorneys have done a lot of work on this case throughout the years, and getting the opportunity to synthesize their work and ours into a closing brief that presented a case that absolutely demanded a new trial was extremely rewarding. I feel very lucky to have had the opportunity to work on a case that has such a positive impact on a person's life."
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