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Michael Powels

Other Detroit CIU Exonerations,%20Michael.jpg
Robert Sawyer was shot to death while stopped at a traffic light in Detroit, Michigan on June 18, 2006. Just before the shooting, Sawyer had been in a violent fight with a former girlfriend. A man named Michael Watson was present, and he got Sawyer out of the house. But Sawyer came back, fired some shots, and then drove off.

Watson wasn’t present when Sawyer fired the shots. When he returned to the house, he was in a white SUV, along with a friend named Michael Powels. Sawyer was shot a few minutes later, and a taxi driver who saw the shooting but could not identify the shooters said a white SUV had pulled up next to Sawyer before shots were fired.

During the investigation, a man named James Tate was interviewed and said that while he didn’t see the shooting, he had seen Watson and Powels drive off in the SUV. He said that he had also heard from two young men in the neighborhood that the 26-year-old Powels had shot Sawyer.

Powels was arrested March 3, 2007 and charged with first-degree murder and unlawful possession of a weapon. His trial began December 3, 2007 and he was convicted of second-degree murder on December 7, 2007. He was sentenced to 45 to 75 years in prison.

Powels appealed, claiming ineffective assistance of counsel and prosecutorial misconduct, but those claims were denied by the Michigan Court of Appeals.

Tate, the state’s key witness, had written two letters to an uncle, one in late December 2006 and one in May 2007. In them, he said he had lied to the police. His intent had been to frame Powels because Tate had stolen about $50,000 from Powels’s house, and he thought – erroneously -- that Powels knew who had done it and would exact revenge. Those letters were not given to police, prosecutors or the defense, and Tate died in 2008.

After Powels’s attorneys learned of their existence, they were turned over to the Conviction Integrity Unit of the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office, which did its own examination before determining that they were written by Tate.

On January 10, 2019, the prosecutor’s office moved to dismiss Powels’s conviction. Because of Tate’s death and the letters he had written, prosecutors said there was no way forward for a retrial. The motion was granted that day. Speaking in court, Powels told Judge Kelly Ramsey that he was grateful that this day had come.

He said, “I’m just blessed that I can get back to my family again, live life again and be a productive member of society.”

In 2019, after his release, Powels filed a claim for compensation from the state of Michigan for his wrongful conviction. The claim was denied.

– Ken Otterbourg

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Posting Date: 2/20/2019
Last Updated: 2/27/2020
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:2006
Sentence:45 to 75 years
Age at the date of reported crime:26
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No