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LaWanda Jenkins

Other Female Michigan Exonerees
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On March 25, 2015, Daniel Stewart was visiting the home of Lawanda Jenkins, his former girlfriend, in Detroit, Michigan. Jenkins was also the mother of Stewart’s eight-year-old son, DJ.

Stewart and Jenkins got into an argument, which turned violent. Stewart would claim that there was a man in Jenkins’s home who heard the commotion and then pushed him into a door frame. Stewart said the man followed him out the door, then busted out the back window of his car with a crowbar. Jenkins, he said, also ran after him, picked up the crowbar and smashed the windshield and hit him in the leg. Stewart said he drove off and called 911.

Jenkins, then 48, said that wasn’t what happened. She said that she asked Stewart to leave after their argument and that he had snatched her purse as he ran out the door. She followed Stewart outside and yelled that her purse had been stolen. But she said she never left her porch. A man from the neighborhood confronted Stewart by his car, she said, and asked him to return the purse. But Stewart refused and threw the purse in the car and attempted to leave. The man then smashed the car with a crowbar as Stewart attempted to drive off.

Jenkins, who had a previous conviction for domestic violence, was charged with two counts of assault, domestic violence, and destruction of personal property.

Prior to the start of her bench trial in Wayne County Court Circuit, Jenkins worked with her attorney, Robert Simmons, on locating potential witnesses. She said she had recently moved to the area, but a neighbor across the street had seen the whole thing. She gave Simmons the neighbor’s address and telephone number, and told him that she thought her name was Jawanda Jones. Simmons called the number, asked for a “Jawanda” and was told nobody by that name lived there. He didn’t follow up after running into that obstacle.

The trial before Judge Cynthia Hathaway took only a day. Stewart and Jenkins both testified to their divergent accounts of the events. DJ was not called as a witness, because Simmons said it would have simply been “cumulative and corroborative.” His closing argument consisted of six words: “Question of fact, Judge, no argument.”

Hathaway found Jenkins guilty of a single count of assault with a deadly weapon on August 19, 2015, stating, “As mildly as I can say it … I don't believe the Defendant. The Defendant exhibits extremely high emotional or lack of control emotionally. She does that here in court and I imagine that she does that outside of this court.” Hathaway sentenced Jenkins to three years on probation and 50 hours of community service.

Jenkins appealed, claiming Simmons was ineffective because he failed to locate the witness across the street. Her appeal was handled by Lianne Kufchock, through the Michigan Appellate Assigned Counsel System. Her team, aided by the Appellate Investigation Project, located the neighbor across the street, a woman named Tawana McKnight. McKnight said that she had seen the tail end of the fight between Stewart and Jenkins. She corroborated Jenkins’s account that she had never left the porch.

In addition, McKnight knew who had thrown the crowbar. It was one of her friends, who had been working on his car in her driveway and had tried to stop Stewart after Jenkins yelled for help. Stewart tried to run the man over, McKnight said, and he responded by smashing the car with the crowbar. Kufchock’s investigator also interviewed DJ, who said that his dad had stolen his mom’s purse.

At an evidentiary hearing on the motion for a new trial, Simmons said he had not put DJ on the stand because Hathaway had discouraged him from doing so, stating her opinion that “it would not be good taste to have this boy testify against his father or be placed in the middle of this brouhaha.”

Hathaway denied Jenkins’s request for a new trial, but the Michigan Court of Appeals reversed the decision on March 15, 2018. It said: “Simmons’s failure to secure McKnight, the across-the-street neighbor wo was known to have witnessed the event, as a witness fell below an objective standard of reasonableness.”

The state retried Jenkins, and she was acquitted at a bench trial, also before Judge Hathaway, on June 14, 2019.

– Ken Otterbourg

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Posting Date: 8/23/2019
State:Michigan
County:Wayne
Most Serious Crime:Assault
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:2015
Convicted:2015
Exonerated:2019
Sentence:Probation
Race:Black
Sex:Female
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