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Aaron Salter

Other Wayne County, Michigan Exonerations
In the early morning hours of August 6, 2003, two men, one armed with a carbine rifle, fired more than 10 shots at a porch on Parkgrove Street in Detroit, Michigan. A man who happened to be passing by—26-year-old Willie Thomas—was killed.

Two of three people on the porch—24-year-old Jamar Luster and 21-year-old Michael Payne—were wounded. Kimberly Allen, whose home was targeted, escaped unscathed.

About three hours later, Detroit police detective Donald Olsen interviewed Luster at the hospital. Luster said he thought one of the gunmen was named “Rob” and hung out on Pelkey Street. Luster described him as a black man around 26 or 27 years old, 5 feet 7 inches tall, 150-170 pounds with light brown skin, a thin beard and low-cut hair. Luster was unable to describe the other gunman.

Luster also said that about a month earlier, a man he knew only as “E,” who lived on Pelkey Street, had fired shots at Allen’s house.

Allen and Payne were unable to describe the gunmen.

Police initially believed that the person Luster called “Rob” was Rob Clark, but he was eliminated as a suspect because he had been shot 11 times two days earlier. And just a few hours before the shooting on Parkgrove, Clark had identified the man who shot him with a carbine as Earland Collins, who was known to hang out on Pelkey Street.

Olsen, who would later say he was “acting on a hunch,” found a photograph of Clark’s cousin, 20-year-old Aaron Salter, and took it to Luster’s home after he was released from the hospital. He showed the single photograph to Luster who said Salter “looked like” the gunman.

Salter, a former high school and college football player—at 6 feet 4 inches tall and 250 pounds—differed markedly from Luster’s physical description. Nevertheless, police arrested him on charges of first-degree murder, two counts of assault with intent to commit murder, and possession of a firearm in the commission of a felony.

On December 3, 2003, Salter went to trial in Wayne County Circuit Court. Luster had testified at a preliminary hearing that Salter “looked like” the gunman. Before the jury, however, Luster positively identified Salter and pointed to him at the defense table.

The prosecutor asked, “You saw two people out there, one of them being Mr. Salter?”

“Yes,” Luster replied.

Detective Olsen testified about Luster identifying Salter’s photograph after being released from the hospital. Salter’s defense attorney, who had met with Salter on just three occasions prior to the trial, tried to cross-examine Olsen about the suggestive nature of the identification. The prosecution objected and the trial judge barred further questioning about the identification. The defense lawyer did not seek to suppress the identification as suggestive.

No physical or forensic evidence linked Salter to the crime. At least 10 shell casings were found and ballistics tests linked them to the same weapon. However, no weapon was ever recovered. The bullet that killed Thomas could not be linked to any specific weapon or the recovered casings.

Before the trial, Salter told his defense lawyer about several witnesses who could testify that he was at a relative’s house with no access to a car at the time of the shooting, but the lawyer never interviewed them or called them as witnesses. Instead, they were in court on December 8, 2003 when the jury convicted Salter of first-degree murder, two counts of assault with intent to commit murder, and possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony.

At the sentencing hearing in January 2004, JoAnn Thomas, sister of Willie Thomas, testified, “(I)n my heart I don’t feel Aaron Salter is the shooter. I just don’t feel that. They got the wrong guy…I don’t think he’s the person that shot my brother. It wasn’t Aaron Salter.”

Asked who she believed the gunman was, she replied, “I don’t know his real name. I know his nickname by the name of E.” She said she had told one of the police officers in the case before Salter was arrested. And after Salter was arrested, she said that whenever she tried to talk to the investigators, no one would listen.

Salter told the judge he was innocent. He said he told his lawyer he was innocent, and his lawyer had said that he would not be convicted “if nobody was actually there” and that the evidence against him was “pretty much hearsay.”

The judge then sentenced Salter to life in prison without parole.

Salter appealed and sought a hearing on his claim that his defense lawyer had provided an inadequate legal defense. The Michigan Court of Appeals denied the motion for a hearing and upheld his convictions.

In 2006, Salter, acting without a lawyer, filed a federal petition for a writ of habeas corpus. In 2008, the Federal Defender Office was appointed to represent Salter. Attorney Jonathan Epstein was assigned to the case and was later joined by attorneys Loren Khogali and Colleen Fitzharris. They commenced a reinvestigation of the case.

The lawyers obtained a court order putting the federal habeas on hold while they returned to Wayne County Circuit Court to file a motion for a new trial based on sworn affidavits from his alibi witnesses and a sworn affidavit from Luster saying he was never really sure that Salter was the gunman—only that he looked like the gunman. That motion was denied.

In 2013, Salter also took a polygraph exam and was determined to be truthful when he said he had nothing to do with the Parkgrove shooting. Salter’s lawyers filed another motion for new trial in Wayne County Circuit Court based on the polygraph as well as a sworn affidavit from Earland Collins, a prison inmate, who said that he was aware of the shooting and that Salter was not involved. That motion also was denied.

In March 2018, Fitzharris and Epstein sent a letter to Valerie Newman, the head of the conviction integrity unit at the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office. The letter summarized the weak nature of Luster’s identification as well as his statement that he wasn’t sure that Salter was the gunman.

The letter also said, “The Federal Defender Office has since learned that on August 5, 2003, Earland Collins shot Robert Clark with a .30-caliber rifle. Clark’s shooting took place in the same place as the Parkgrove shooting. The Parkgrove shooting happened the next day and also involved a .30-caliber rifle. It appears that Clark identified Collins as ‘E’.”

The letter said that Collins had contacted the lawyers and “advised us that he has first hand knowledge that Mr. Salter was not involved in the shooting on Parkgrove.”

Collins, who is 6 feet 2 inches tall and 200 pounds, is serving a lengthy prison term for several armed robberies, carjacking, and home invasion convictions; his earliest parole date is 2055. “Although he did not identify himself as the shooter, he did provide information about who he knows to be the shooter,” the letter said. “We have reason to believe that Earland Collins is also known as ‘E.’”

In fact, on two occasions in two different prisons over the past several years, Collins and Salter crossed paths. On both occasions Collins expressed surprise that Salter was in prison.

On the second occasion, in 2013, Collins gave such a detailed description of the shooting for which Salter had been convicted that Salter concluded that Collins had to be the gunman. Salter became upset and another inmate had to separate them.

As part the investigation by Fitzharris and Epstein, they located the inmate who came between Salter and Collins. That inmate corroborated Salter’s account of the incident and passed a polygraph exam.

Salter also took a polygraph exam and was determined to be truthful when he said he had nothing to do with the Parkgrove shooting.

The defense reinvestigation also uncovered notes from Salter’s probation officer that documented a call from Salter at about 8 a.m. on August 6, 2003—just a few hours after the shooting on Parkgrove. The notes indicated that Salter called to tell her why he had not contacted her. He explained that he had witnessed the shooting of his cousin, Rob Clark, the day before and that he was afraid that the gunman—Collins—would come after him. The probation officer noted that she advised Salter to go to the police and file a report, but that he said he couldn’t do that immediately because he did not have access to a car.

The notes supported the statements of Salter’s alibi witnesses who said that Salter was with them on the night of the Parkgrove shooting, and that he did not have access to a vehicle.

The conviction integrity unit commenced a reinvestigation of the case. During an interview, Collins said he knew about the shooting, but did not want to talk about it for fear that he would be charged with the crime.

On August 15, 2018, Newman, assistant prosecutor Carole Stanyer, Fitzharris, and Epstein presented a joint motion to vacate Salter’s convictions and dismiss the charges. Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Annette Berry granted the motion and Salter was released.

Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy issued a statement that she would support Salter’s application for state compensation. In the statement, Worthy said that the officer in charge of the case said Luster’s identification was “very weak.”

Worthy said, “This was the first time (the prosecution) was informed of the investigating officer’s opinion about the case.”

“It has been determined that the case against Mr. Salter was based primarily on mistaken identification by the main witness in the case,” Worthy said. “The system failed him. Nothing I can say will bring back the years of his life spent in prison. Justice is truly being served today.”

In October 2018, Salter filed a federal civil rights lawsuit seeking compensation from the city of Detroit. He was awarded $748,630 in compensation from the state of Michigan.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 8/20/2018
Last Updated: 10/15/2020
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Attempted Murder, Illegal Use of a Weapon
Reported Crime Date:2003
Sentence:Life without parole
Age at the date of reported crime:20
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No