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Gerry Thomas

Other Wayne County, Michigan exonerations with mistaken witness identification
https://www.law.umich.edu/special/exoneration/PublishingImages/Gerry_Thomas.jpeg
At about 9:30 p.m. on November 27, 1987, a 35-year-old Detroit woman was attacked in her car as she waited outside a convenience store near the intersection of Minnesota and Dequindre Streets.

The woman, V.L., was taking her 6-year-old son to spend the night with his grandmother. V.L. stopped two blocks away so that her son could buy a bag of potato chips. When the boy emerged from the store, V.L. reached over and unlocked the passenger door of the 1986 Ford Escort. As she did so, she saw her son pushed away from the door and an arm reach in brandishing a butcher knife. Before she could react, the man poked her with the knife and ordered her to “drive.” He said her son would be fine on his own.

V.L. then drove off with the man holding her arm so she could not try to escape. After directing her where to go, he ordered her to halt the car in an alley. The man then demanded her rings, necklace, and wallet. Then he pushed back his seat, lowered his pants, and ordered V.L. to perform oral sex on him.

V.L. later told police that when she finished, she bit the man’s penis as hard as she could and the man responded by stabbing her in the chest. She grabbed the knife blade with both hands, cutting herself badly. During the struggle, V.L. managed to open her door and fall to the ground.

She later told police that her attacker climbed over the console and gearshift of the compact car to try to grab her, but she fled. She said the car then sped off. V.L. managed to reach the yard of a resident who allowed her inside and called police. V.L. also called her mother (V.L.’s son’s grandmother) who said that the boy was safe with her.

V.L. was taken to a hospital where she was treated for her wounds. An oral swab was negative for any semen.

On December 20, 1987, Detroit police stopped a Ford Escort for a traffic violation and discovered it was V.L.’s car. The driver, a 16-year-old boy, and his passenger, a 20-year-old man, were put in lineups, but V.L. said that neither was her attacker.

Nearly two years later, in September 1989, V.L. saw a man whom she thought was her attacker walking near Eight Mile Road. She left to find her husband and returned to the area sometime later with the police. She saw 32-year-old Gerry Thomas sitting at a nearby Burger King eating lunch and identified him as the man who attacked her nearly two years earlier.

Thomas was placed in a lineup and V.L. identified him as her attacker. At the time of the crime, V.L., who was 5 feet 3 inches tall, described her attacker as a black man with a dark complexion, who was about 5 feet 9 inches tall with a medium build. Thomas was 6 feet 4 inches tall and weighed at least 240 pounds. He also was a black man with a light complexion, pock marks on his face, a scar on his nose, and missing all his front teeth—features that V.L. never mentioned at the time of the crime. Thomas was not arrested despite the identification.

In January 1990, the case, along with about 100 others, was re-assigned to a detective in the Detroit Police sex crimes unit. Officer Rosalind Means later said she was the fourth officer assigned to the case. Of the three previous officers, two had retired and a third was transferred.

On May 24, 1990, Thomas was arrested and charged with criminal sexual conduct, armed robbery, and assault with intent to commit murder.

Thomas went to trial in Recorder’s Court in Detroit in January 1991. V.L. identified him as her attacker. Detective Means testified that the police reports of the recovery of V.L.’s car failed to note whether the car was checked for fingerprints, blood, or other biological evidence.

Thomas’s brother testified that Thomas was staying at his home at the time of the crime. He said he recalled Thomas being home that night because it was the day after Thanksgiving and because the house was secured nightly with deadbolt locks (due to previous burglaries). Thomas, he testified, did not have a key.

Photographs of V.L.’s car, including one with the passenger door open, were shown to the jury. The view of the front passenger seat showed it in the most forward position, which is where it was when her son left the car to buy potato chips on the night of the crime. V.L. testified that the passenger seat was pushed all the way forward while her assailant was sitting in that seat.

On January 25, 1991, the jury convicted Thomas of criminal sexual conduct, armed robbery, and assault with intent to commit murder. He was initially sentenced to 40 to 60 years in prison, but then, prior to appeal, the trial judge amended the sentence to 60 to 75 years in prison. Several months later, Thomas moved to set aside that sentence arguing that it violated a Michigan court decision prohibiting a minimum sentence that is more than two-thirds of the maximum sentence. In response, after a hearing, the trial judge increased the sentence from 60 to 75 years to 60 to 90 years.

Thomas appealed. In 1994, his convictions were upheld, but the Michigan Supreme Court amended his sentence to 50 to 75 years.

In 2002, Thomas wrote to the Innocence Project at Cardozo School of Law. In 2010, Thomas’s case was accepted by the Innocence Project. Despite years of searching with the assistance of the Western Michigan University Cooley Law School Innocence Project, the Innocence Project was never able to locate any physical evidence in the case.

In December 2017, the Innocence Project asked the Conviction Integrity Unit of the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office to review the case, As part of its investigation, the Conviction Integrity Unit uncovered police reports documenting the recovery of V.L.’s car. The reports showed that the 16-year-old who was driving the car said he had borrowed the car from his older brother and that police found the registration paper for the vehicle in the older brother’s home.

Despite this, police never investigated the brother as a suspect in the attack, even though he was about 5 feet 9 inches tall, had a medium build, and had a dark complexion—resembling V.L.’s description far more accurately than Thomas. There was no evidence indicating whether these reports were ever turned over to the prosecution or the defense prior to Thomas’s trial. It was clear, however, that the jury never heard that evidence.

As part of the joint investigation by the Innocence Project and the Conviction Integrity Unit, an investigator found a Ford Escort similar to V.L.’s vehicle. The investigator determined that a person of Thomas’s physical stature could not have slid into the front seat vacated by V.L.’s son without moving the seat all the way back first. In addition, the re-investigation showed it was virtually physically impossible for a man of Thomas’s size to leap over the console and gear shift as V.L. said her attacker had done.

On January 13, 2020, Wayne County Circuit Court Chief Judge Prentis Edwards, Jr. granted a joint motion by the Innocence Project and the Conviction Integrity Unit to vacate Thomas’s convictions. The prosecution then dismissed the charges, and Thomas was released nearly 30 years after his arrest.

“We are incredibly grateful to the CIU and to District Attorney Kym Worthy for the significant time and resources they gave over the last two years to thoroughly reinvestigate this case,” Innocence Project attorney Jane Pucher said. “If the police had conducted a true investigation 30 years ago, Mr. Thomas never would have been arrested in the first place.”

Thomas filed a claim for state compensation in July 2020.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 1/31/2020
Last Updated: 9/18/2020
State:Michigan
County:Wayne
Most Serious Crime:Attempted Murder
Additional Convictions:Rape, Robbery
Reported Crime Date:1987
Convicted:1991
Exonerated:2020
Sentence:40 to 60 years
Race/Ethnicity:Black
Sex:Male
Age at the date of reported crime:30
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No