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John Palazzolo

Other Michigan Exonerations with Inadequate Legal Defense
In September 2005, 19-year-old Crystal Schultz told police in Melvindale, Michigan that she had been held captive for a week and a half by 48-year-old John Palazzolo. She said Palazzolo raped her three times and forced her to have sex with other men for drugs and money.

Palazzolo was arrested on September 24, 2005 and charged with three counts of criminal sexual conduct.

He went to trial in Wayne County Circuit Court in February 2006 and chose to have the judge decide the case without a jury. Schultz testified that she was walking down a street when she met Palazzolo, who told her that a friend of hers was at a party at his house.

She said she went there, but her friend was not there. Instead, a group of men were playing cards and using drugs. Schultz said Palazzolo told her that she had to have sex with some of the men and in return would be given money and drugs. She said she refused, but Palazzolo threatened to beat or kill her. She also said Palazzolo gave her a drink which made her fall asleep. She woke and was forced to smoke crack cocaine, she testified.

Schultz said that because of the effects of drugs left her in a condition she felt she could not leave. During the next several days, Palazzolo raped her three times and forced her to have sex with other men. She said that she managed to escape from the house on September 11. She went to police on September 21—she said she was too afraid to go before that because she had drugs in her system.

A Melvindale police officer testified that the police searched Palazzolo’s house that day and found empty pill bottles, crack pipes and other drug paraphernalia.

Palazzolo testified that Schultz was propositioning men on the street and that he invited her to his house so that she could have sex with men in exchange for money and drugs. He denied threatening or assaulting Schultz. Palazzolo testified that Schultz willingly had sex with him because he allowed her to stay at the house.

Palazzolo also testified that after Schultz voluntarily left his house, and before he was arrested, an acquaintance named James Waitman told him that Schultz was planning to falsely accuse him of rape in an attempt to extort money from him and his family.

Prior to the trial, Palazzolo told his attorney that Waitman would corroborate his testimony about Schultz’s plan to falsely accuse him. Palazzolo also told his attorney about another witness, Ronald Harris, whom he said would testify that Schultz was a sex worker with a serious drug habit. The attorney did not call any of the witnesses.

On February 14, 2006, Wayne County Circuit Judge Thomas Jackson convicted Palazzolo of two counts of third-degree criminal sexual conduct. The judge said he did not believe Schultz was “sophisticated enough” to plan and follow through with any set up. The judge sentenced Palazzolo to six to 15 years in prison.

After the Michigan Court of Appeals and Michigan Supreme Court upheld his convictions, Palazzolo filed a petition for a federal writ of habeas corpus.

An evidentiary hearing was held in January 2011.

Waitman testified at the hearing that he told Palazzolo that he knew that a friend of Schultz’s had persuaded her to make the false rape charges, but that he had no idea that Palazzolo had been charged because shortly after the conversation with Palazzolo, he moved to Arizona.

Harris testified that he saw Schultz at Palazzolo’s house 30 to 40 times during the late summer of 2005 and that he saw her come and go as she pleased. He said he would have testified at Palazzolo’s trial if asked, but he never was.

Palazzolo’s attorney, Edward J. Holmberg, testified that his strategy was to “keep it simple” and present a defense that the sex was consensual and that Schultz was not held captive. He acknowledged that Palazzolo told him he was being set up, but did not present that defense because he was concerned about confusing Judge Jackson. Holmberg said he hired a process server to try to find Waitman, but after a few failed attempts, abandoned the search. Holmberg said he decided he didn’t need Harris’s testimony, but could not remember why he thought that at the time of the trial.

A private investigator testified for Palazzolo that he was able to locate Waitman within a month by contacting his mother who lived in the Melvindale area. Senior U.S. District Judge Arthur Tarnow ordered that Palazzolo be granted a new trial or released within 100 days. Judge Tarnow rejected the notion that Judge Jackson would have been confused by testimony from Waitman or Harris. “The facts of this case are not the type which lead to confusion,” Judge Tarnow wrote in his decision. “Trial counsel’s failure to secure testimony, like that which Waitman would have provided, left Judge Jackson with only ‘he said, she said’ testimony.”

Judge Tarnow said that Holmberg had provided a constitutionally inadequate defense for Palazzolo by failing to even contact Waitman or Harris, let alone evaluate the risks and benefits of calling them to testify. “There is a reasonable probability that Judge Jackson’s opinion would have changed had he heard testimony from Harris and Waitman.”

Palazzolo was released on bond in June 2011.

The prosecution appealed the decision to the Sixth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals and oral argument was scheduled for June 6, 2012. However, on June 5, the Michigan Attorney General’s Office filed a motion to dismiss the appeal.

On September 26, 2012, the charges against Palazzolo were dismissed. That same month, Palazzolo filed a federal lawsuit against the Melvindale Police Department, Schultz and the Wayne County Prosecuting Attorney Kym Worthy, but the lawsuit was dismissed.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 6/29/2015
Most Serious Crime:Sexual Assault
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:2005
Sentence:6 to 15 years
Age at the date of reported crime:48
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No