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Hattie Tanner

Other Michigan Exonerations
In the early morning hours of March 22, 1995, 35-year-old Sharon Watson, bartender at Barney’s Bedford Bar and Grill in Battle Creek, Michigan, called her boyfriend to report she was closing early at about 1:30 a.m. because business was slow.

When she did not come home by 2 a.m., the boyfriend called the bar, but no one answered. He managed to contact another bartender who came to the bar with her husband around 5:30 a.m. They found the lights on and the television at high volume.

Watson’s purse was sitting open on the back of the bar and a fixed-blade knife was lying behind the bar where the glasses were washed. The bar’s owner arrived soon after and opened the basement office door to find Watson’s body covered in blood. She had been stabbed multiples times and had numerous bruises and abrasions on her arms and hands, suggesting she had fought her attacker. The cabinet where the cash drawer from behind the bar was stored was unlocked. An audit would later show $1,009 was missing.

The office was in disarray, indicating a struggle had occurred. Mud and footprints were visible next to a rug. None of the footprints could be linked to any employees who had been in the office that day.

Police arrived around 6:30 a.m. and a crime lab supervisor arrived around 7 a.m., but left when he realized he didn’t have the proper equipment to process the scene. By the time he returned at 8 a.m., some of the critical areas had been compromised by bar employees and others who had arrived for work and were making coffee behind the bar.

Nonetheless, police found a diluted bloodstain in the sink behind the bar and blood under and around the knife. Images of the footprints in the basement were taken and blood samples were taken from Watson’s shirt. Fresh tire tracks—believed to have been left by a truck—were found outside the bar.

Employees told police that whoever closed the bar was required to take the cash drawer from the register and lock it up downstairs. They further said that Watson would never remove the cash drawer in the presence of strangers. She would do so only if the remaining customers were trusted regulars. It was common practice to close early if business was slow. Bartenders also commonly allowed take-out orders during early closing. If the cash drawer had already been removed, bartenders would record the sale on a piece of paper and leave the note and money by the register for the owners to collect in the morning.

Police determined that Watson had taken an order to go for a six-pack of Budweiser based on a note found by the cash register. What was believed to be the six-pack in question was found by the door with bloodstains on the carton as well as a napkin stuck inside.

Sometime between 8 and 9:30 a.m., Rob Cady, a Barney’s regular, stopped at the bar and left after a couple of minutes. However, that afternoon, he returned and said that he had been in the bar around 1 a.m. He said that he was one of the last customers to leave and when he left, a white male whom he did not know was still there. Cady helped police create a composite sketch of the man.

Police interviewed Cady again about three weeks later. Cady said that he had left work around 11 p.m. that night and called an acquaintance, 35-year-old Hattie Tanner, to arrange to buy some crack cocaine. He said he picked Tanner up around midnight, left to buy the crack, then returned to her home where they smoked it until around 12:30 a.m. or 1 a.m. Cady said he left to go cash a check so he could buy more crack.

He said he went to Barney’s and although the outside light and some interior lights were off, he found the side door open. He said Watson had already removed the cash drawer, so he could not cash a check. He said he saw the white man whom he did not know and left. He admitted that he sometimes bought beer to go and that his beer of choice was Budweiser, but denied knowing anything about the six-pack found near the door with the bloody napkin. Cady said he went to Green’s tavern where he cashed the check, drank a beer, and made a phone call. He left, bought more crack, and went to smoke it with Tanner at the home where she lived with her mother.

Cady said Tanner’s mother kicked him out around 2:30 a.m. When he drove past Barney’s, he saw that the outside bar sign had been turned back on and that interior lights also were switched on.

Police interviewed Tanner for the first time on May 3, 1995. She told police that Cady came over after work, they smoked crack, and then Cady left to cash a check and buy more crack. She said he returned and they smoked crack until around 3 a.m. when her mother asked him to leave because he was making too much noise. When asked about the last time she was in Barney’s, Tanner said she had not been there for at least five years.

On May 24, 1995, Detective David Walters interviewed Tanner at the Battle Creek police department. Although the interview was recorded, the quality was so poor and Tanner’s manner of speech was so difficult to understand that in a 32-page transcript, 261 of Tanner’s responses were listed as “inaudible.”

Walters later claimed that only part of the interview was recorded due to recording problems. During an unrecorded portion, he said, he showed Tanner a picture of the knife found behind the bar and she admitted it was hers. During another recorded portion, however, Tanner said the knife couldn’t have been hers because she had a folding knife, not a fixed-blade knife depicted in the photograph.

Two days later, on May 26, Detective Walters met Cady at Barney’s for an interview. Walters would later testify that Cady was “visibly shaking” and wearing sunglasses even though it was a “dark, dreary day.” During that conversation, Walters said Cady admitted he knew the cash drawer was kept in the bar’s basement office and that he knew how to get to that office.

On June 7, 1995, Walters said he interviewed Tanner again as she rode in the back of a police car driven by Walters’s partner. During this interview, which was not recorded, Walters said Tanner said for the first time that she went with Cady when he drove to Barney’s to try to cash a check, although she remained in the car in the parking lot while Cady was inside the bar.

Walters said Tanner denied killing Watson. He said that when he asked her under what circumstances she might have killed Watson, however, she said that if “that bitch” had treated her badly, she might have. Walters said Tanner also said that whoever had killed Watson and carried her downstairs would have been covered in blood and that Cady didn’t have any blood on him when he came out of the bar.

In July 1995, Walters sought arrest warrants for Cady and Tanner, but the Calhoun County Prosecutor’s office declined to approve them because there was insufficient evidence. In 1997, a new prosecutor took office and Walters tried again. Finally, in May 2000, charges were approved for Tanner alone. She was charged with first-degree premeditated murder, first-degree felony murder, second-degree murder, and armed robbery.

Prior to trial, Tanner’s defense lawyer requested funds to pay for a forensic expert because the prosecution intended to present evidence that the miniscule sample of blood found in the sink behind the bar was of the same blood type as Tanner’s. This meant only that Tanner was among tens of thousands of people who had the same blood type. The state had performed DNA tests on other evidence—the blood on the napkin found in the six-pack of beer and on Watson’s shirt—but Tanner had been excluded as its source. The amount of blood found in the sink was too small to submit for DNA testing.

Tanner’s lawyer told the judge, “I’m no DNA guy…I don’t even know what those letters stand for to be honest with you.” He said he was just about equally unfamiliar with blood-typing testing, known as serology. He said he wasn’t seeking a reanalysis, but to be able to consult with an expert to be able to understand the significance (or lack of it) of the prosecution’s evidence.

The prosecution opposed the request and noted that the DNA testing had excluded Tanner. The judge, concerned about setting a bad precedent by authorizing funding when the state conceded the defendant was excluded, denied the motion. The issue of whether an expert would assist the defense on the blood-typing evidence was not addressed.

In November 2000, five months after Tanner was charged, she went to trial in Calhoun County Circuit Court. Witnesses—forensic analysts, police, and the medical examiner—all testified that Watson had been killed during a struggle and that blood would have been transferred to her attacker.

However, the prosecution conceded that although police searched Tanner’s home and seized the clothes she was wearing on the night of the crime, they found no blood or any other evidence linking Tanner to the crime. Similarly, police had searched Cady’s car and taken his clothing for testing with negative results.

Megan Clement, a DNA analyst from a private testing company who conducted the DNA testing for the prosecution, testified that DNA found on Watson’s shirt was either Watson’s or another unidentified female. Neither Tanner’s nor Cady’s DNA was found on Watson’s clothing. DNA testing performed on blood found by the knife excluded Tanner and Cady as well.

Although Clement did not perform the blood-typing tests that were conducted on the blood found in the bar sink, she testified that Tanner had the same blood type—Type B—with the same protein markers (2+1+) as was found in the sink. She said that about four percent of black people had that same blood type and protein markers. She further told that jury that black people comprised 26 percent of the U.S. population of 280 million people, and four percent of 26 percent meant that “possibly millions” of people had Type B with those markers.

A Michigan crime lab analyst testified that she performed serological blood typing of the sample of blood from the sink (which was too minute to be tested for DNA). She said that she excluded Cady and Watson because they had different blood types, but that the blood type was the same as Tanner’s. Tanner’s defense lawyer did not cross-examine the analyst about the number of people with that same blood type.

Detective Walters testified that Tanner had admitted that the knife found at the bar was hers, although recorded portions of interview showed that she denied it was hers.

The defense called a friend of Watson’s who testified that some time prior to the crime, Watson had found a fixed-blade knife and said she was going to keep it in her purse. Although the purse had been found open next to the knife behind the bar, the witness was unable to say whether that was the specific knife that Watson had found.

Tanner’s mother testified and said she woke up around 3 a.m. to go to the bathroom and saw Cady and Tanner in the house. Neither, she said, had any blood on them.

Two witnesses testified that they drove by Barney’s—one at 1:15 a.m. and another at 2:45 a.m.—and saw a light-colored truck parked in the bar’s parking lot.

An employee of Green’s Tavern confirmed that Cady came to the bar on the night Watson was murdered and cashed a check. The employee said Cady was by himself.

Tanner testified that Cady came by and they went out to buy crack. They then returned to her home where they smoked it. She said Cady then left to cash a check and returned with more crack, which they smoked. She said Cady left around 3 a.m.

Tanner denied going with Cady to Barney’s, said she couldn’t recall ever going to Barney’s, and denied killing Watson. She told the jury the knife found at the bar was not hers.

At the close of the evidence, Tanner’s attorney asked the judge to acquit Tanner because of insufficient evidence. The judge denied the motion.

On November 22, 2000, the jury acquitted Tanner of first-degree premeditated murder, but convicted her of first-degree felony murder, second-degree murder, and armed robbery. Prior to sentencing, the judge entered an order of acquittal on the charges of second-degree murder and armed robbery. Tanner was sentenced on the charge of first-degree felony murder to life in prison without parole.

In 2003, the Michigan Court of Appeals reversed her conviction, ruling that the judge should have allowed the defense funding to retain a forensic expert. The court also ruled that the trial judge should have acquitted Tanner on the charge of first-degree felony murder, noting that there was insufficient evidence that Cady had committed the crime. The jurors, the appeals court said, never specified whether Tanner was convicted of the felony murder charge as an aider and abettor or as the principal killer.

Months later, however, the Michigan Supreme Court vacated that ruling and reinstated Tanner’s convictions.

In 2004, Tanner, acting without a lawyer, filed a federal petition for a writ of habeas corpus. In 2005, the petition was denied. Tanner, still without a lawyer, then missed the deadline for filing an appeal because prison authorities denied her access to the prison library to pick up legal papers needed to file her notice of appeal. Her appeal was dismissed.

That triggered a legal battle lasting nearly a decade.

During these years, Tanner approached the Michigan Innocence Clinic at the University of Michigan Law School for help. Over four years, the clinic searched fruitlessly for new evidence. Finally, Imran Syed, assistant director of the clinic, sought help from Chad Readler, an attorney at the law firm of Jones Day.

Tanner sued the prison. In 2012, a jury awarded her $22,000 in damages and found that her appeal should be reinstated.

In 2015, Tanner was finally allowed to appeal the dismissal of her habeas petition to the Sixth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals. During oral arguments before Judges Martha Daughtrey, Raymond Kethledge, and Karen Moore, lawyers for the prosecution were questioned repeatedly about the failure of the defense to get funding for a forensic expert.

Judge Kethledge declared, “The problem is, we don’t know what other points there might be. What about this ‘two-plus one-plus…(Referring to the specifics of the prosecution’s serological conclusions)? Who knows? I mean, do we know to this day whether that would be exculpatory, or whether that’s something [the prosecution expert] got wrong?”

At one point, Judge Daughtrey interrupted.

“I have been sitting on criminal appeals for over 42 years now,” she declared. “And I want to tell you, the distinct possibility that this woman is innocent is the kind of thing that makes trial judges, but even particularly appellate judges, lose sleep at night—the very thought that this could happen.”

“And I would just say however this case comes out that maybe the state of Michigan should consider what to do about this case,” Judge Daughtrey declared. “Just consider for example that this may not be the murderer that has been in the state prison for 22 years and that some sort of review and reconsideration ought to take place.“

In August 2017, the Sixth Circuit reversed Tanner’s conviction. Although the court did not specifically rule on whether the trial court had erroneously denied the defense the funds for an expert, the court noted that Tanner’s habeas lawyers had provided evidence showing that the demographic information provided at the trial by the prosecution’s DNA expert Clement was “wrong.”

Not only did Clement overstate the U.S. population by nearly 20 million, but the black population was 12.6 percent, not 26 percent, the appeals court noted. Moreover, Clement’s testimony “implied that the blood must have come from an African-American person, but Clement had no way of knowing the contributor’s race,” the court said. “In sum, there were millions of people who could have contributed the blood found on the sink and most are not African American…(which is) relevant because Tanner is African American.”

The court ultimately ruled for Tanner on a different issue—that the evidence overall was insufficient to sustain a conviction for first-degree felony murder.

“The blood found near Barney’s sink matched Tanner’s blood type and (protein subtype),” the court said. “Millions of people share Tanner’s blood type and (protein subtype). Any one of those people could have contributed the blood. The experts who testified at trial about serology did not provide precise (or even accurate) information about the frequency…but they did at least acknowledge that millions of people have type B two plus one plus blood.”

The court said the blood testimony was particularly critical because it was collected under less than pristine circumstances. By the time the crime scene analysts began their work, the court noted, employees were behind the bar, preparing for business.

“(T)here is no way of knowing whether the blood belonged to the perpetrator or to one of the people who gathered at Barney’s the morning after Watson’s murder,” the court said.

On September 7, 2017, Tanner was released on bond. The prosecution appealed the ruling. On March 19, 2018, the case was finally dismissed when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to allow a further appeal.

In October 2019, Tanner filed a federal civil rights lawsuit seeking damages from Walters and the city of Battle Creek.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 4/3/2018
Last Updated: 12/26/2019
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:1995
Sentence:Life without parole
Age at the date of reported crime:35
Contributing Factors:False Confession, False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No