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Carl Bruner II

Other Wayne County, Michigan homicide exonerations
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In the early morning hours of June 20, 2012, two security guards working at the Pandemonium Club on East Congress Street in Detroit, Michigan were shot in the back. Thirty-eight-year-old Marcel Jackson was killed, and 25-year-old Wayne White Jr. survived because he was wearing a bulletproof vest.

The police investigation focused on 29-year-old Carl Bruner II and 37-year-old Michael Lawson. Security guards said that earlier in the evening, they forcibly removed Bruner from the club because he punched a woman twice in the face after she slapped him. However, the woman later said she didn’t get to the club until 1:15 a.m.—more than an hour after Bruner was ejected. White said Bruner came back and demanded that he be given his keys and his cell phone. He was given his keys and was told that he could come into the club and look for his phone if he consented to a search. When Bruner refused, he was turned away.

White said that he later saw Lawson drive by the club with Bruner in the passenger seat of a Dodge Charger. The car circled the block a couple of times and Bruner was no longer in the vehicle. Jackson and White were looking at the car when numerous shots were fired from behind them.

Police recovered three shell casings that came from one weapon and 10 casings that came from another. The bullet that killed Jackson was never recovered, and the slug recovered from White’s vest could not be linked to any of the casings.

The case received substantial media attention because Jackson was a volunteer in the Detroit 300, a group of citizens, civic groups, organizations, and businesses that joined together to fight crime. In the days before his death, Jackson had been searching for a man who allegedly raped a 13-year-old girl on the city’s west side.

Bruner and Lawson were not arrested until May of 2014, even though security guards identified Bruner as being the person who was ejected from the club, at one point was said to have threatened to come back, and both men were identified as being in the Charger. The woman who Bruner was said to have punched was unable to identify him in a photographic lineup.

At Lawson’s preliminary hearing, the prosecution called Westley Webb, who testified that Lawson told him that Bruner had returned to the club with a gun and was responsible for the shooting. Webb made the statement in January 2014 after he was arrested on unrelated charges. Webb was not called to testify at Bruner’s separate preliminary hearing.

In November 2014, Bruner and Lawson went to trial together in Wayne County Circuit Court. They were charged with first-degree murder, assault with intent to murder, illegal possession of a firearm, and illegal use of a firearm.

The prosecution told the jury that after getting his keys, Bruner returned with Lawson driving. The prosecution argued that at some point, while the car was circling the block, Bruner got out. Lawson then stopped in front of the club and got out. While the security guards were focused on him, Bruner shot at them from behind.

No physical or forensic evidence linked Lawson or Bruner to the crime.

Prior to the trial, Bruner’s defense attorney sought to bar Webb’s testimony that Lawson had admitted to Webb that Bruner had returned with a gun and fired the shots. The attorney argued that the testimony was inadmissible because the defense could not force Lawson to testify and therefore could not cross-examine him.

The motion was denied.

Darnell Price, one of several security guards working at the club that night, testified that at about midnight he was at the DJ booth on the second floor when he saw a man and woman get into an altercation. Price said he took the man, whom he identified as Bruner, to the floor and other security officers then removed him from the club. He said he followed them downstairs and that Bruner was loud and “ready to fight.” Bruner was then thrown out of the club.

Price said that at about 2:30 a.m., Bruner approached and asked to re-enter so that he could find his phone. Price said he told Bruner he could do so after he was searched but Bruner refused to be searched and walked away. About a half hour later, Price said he saw Bruner circling the block in a Dodge Charger, and then later saw the Charger pass again without Bruner.

Price said the Charger stopped in front of the Sweetwater Tavern across the street from the club. At that moment, shots were fired toward him from behind. He said he heard Jackson say that he had been hit. Price and two other men pulled Jackson into the alley and tried to stop the bleeding, but they were unsuccessful.

During cross-examination, Price said that when Bruner refused to be searched, he was wearing a pair of shorts and a white “wife beater” shirt and that he did not see a gun on him. Price also testified that when Bruner was tossed out of the club, he said, “I’ll be back.”

White testified that the Charger circled the block three times and that after the third pass, Bruner was no longer in the car. White said that after the third pass, Lawson pulled up in front of the Sweetwater Tavern and got out while on his cell phone. White said the gunshots then began. White testified that the man who approached security about getting his phone returned was 5 feet 6 inches or 5 feet 7 inches tall. During cross-examination, Bruner stood up at the request of his defense attorney to show that he was 6 feet 2 inches tall.

Another security guard, Deandre Mack, testified that he saw the car circling the block, but could not see the passenger clearly. He identified Bruner as being the man who was ejected from the club and Lawson as the driver of the Charger. Mack said that during the altercation outside the club after Bruner was ejected, he heard him say, “You are going to get yours.”

However, during cross-examination, Mack admitted he did not actually hear the words, but that he read Bruner’s lips. He also admitted that at the time of the shooting, he said Bruner was wearing blue jeans and a white shirt. He also conceded that although he wrote the word “shooter” on Bruner’s photograph when he viewed the photographic lineup, he did not see the shooter and he did not know who the shooter was.

Terry Lopez testified that she had been in a romantic relationship with Bruner earlier in 2012 and they purchased a Dodge Charger together. She said that she had planned to meet with Bruner on June 19, 2012, the night the shooting occurred, but that they had a fight and she did not go. She testified that she didn’t hear from Bruner again for about a year.

Detroit police detective Nancy Foster testified that she had studied three surveillance videos from other nearby businesses that showed a Charger driving nearby, but that she was unable to determine who was in the car. She said video from the club did not show Bruner at any time. She also said there were no other videos.

The prosecutor, who had told the jury in his opening statement that Webb would testify that Lawson said Bruner had committed the shooting, said that Webb could not be found. The judge, over the defense objection, allowed the prosecution to read Webb’s testimony at Lawson’s preliminary hearing. Each reference to Bruner’s name was replaced with the word “Blank.”

In the testimony, Webb said that Lawson told him that Blank got out of the car before the shooting and that Blank was carrying a gun. Webb said that after Blank got out of the car, “[S]hots rung up.” Webb said that after the shooting, Blank told him he had a ride home.

In the testimony, Webb said he had the conversation with Lawson shortly after the shooting, although he never told police about it until after he was arrested on gun charges in 2014.

Bruner’s defense lawyer presented evidence that Webb received a beneficial plea bargain in his own case as a result of providing testimony against Lawson and Bruner. Webb had been permitted to withdraw a plea of guilty in February 2014 to a charge of felony possession of a firearm, and to plead guilty to other crimes. He was placed on probation for three years.

Bruner’s defense attorney called no witnesses. Lawson’s attorney called a witness, Bryan Huff, who testified that he was parked outside the club waiting to pick up his friend, when he noticed a Charger parked across the street in front of the Sweetwater Tavern. He said he could not see anything inside the vehicle because it had dark tinted windows.

On December 4, 2014, Bruner was convicted of first-degree murder, assault with intent to murder, illegal use of a firearm, and illegal possession of a firearm. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole. Lawson was convicted of second-degree murder and assault with intent to murder. He was sentenced to 37½ to 75 years in prison.

On appeal, Bruner’s attorney, David Moffitt, argued that Bruner’s trial had been constitutionally unfair. Replacing Bruner’s name with “Blank” had been meaningless because the prosecutor had been allowed to tell the jury during his opening statement that Webb was going to testify that Bruner had been put out of the club after “getting into it with a girl” and that when he and Bruner came back to the club, Bruner “had a gun.”

Bruner’s attorney had no opportunity to cross-examine Webb or Lawson, Moffitt argued.

In 2016, the Michigan Court of Appeals upheld the convictions. The court ruled that Webb’s testimony had been offered only against Lawson and not against Bruner.

In June 2019, the Michigan Supreme Court reversed Bruner’s conviction and ordered a new trial. The court held that it could not conclude that the admission of Webb’s testimony did not “tip the scale in favor of the prosecution and contribute to the jury’s verdict.”

In February 2020, Bruner went to trial a second time in Wayne County Circuit Court represented by a new attorney, Lillian Diallo.

Prior to trial, Diallo requested Detective Foster’s case notes, which had not been disclosed before. In the notes, Foster said that she had downloaded four security videos—not three as she testified at Bruner and Lawson’s trial. During her testimony in the retrial, Foster said she could not remember what was on the fourth video or what happened to it after she downloaded it.

Webb, who had now been located by the prosecution, testified. However, he said he had never met Bruner and that he never believed what Lawson told him back in 2012. Asked why he didn’t take him seriously, Webb said Lawson was a known liar. Webb said he told police that what he had heard was a rumor, not fact, although the police report of his interview did not record that statement.

On March 6, 2020, the jury acquitted Bruner and he was released.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 4/2/2020
State:Michigan
County:Wayne
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Attempted Murder, Gun Possession or Sale, Illegal Use of a Weapon
Reported Crime Date:2012
Convicted:2014
Exonerated:2020
Sentence:Life without parole
Race:Black
Sex:Male
Age at the date of reported crime:29
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No