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Parrish Towns

Other Wayne County, Michigan exonerations with mistaken witness identification
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Around 8 p.m. on October 1, 1982, 55-year-old Roland Higgs, an automotive engineer and part-time Amway salesman, pulled his car into a driveway in the 19700 block of Mark Twain Street in Detroit, Michigan to deliver some Amway home products to 40-year-old Wilma Steward.

As Higgs walked toward the front door, two men approached and pointed guns at his face. One said, “We mean business. We want your money.” When Higgs tried to laugh it off as a prank and said he didn’t live there, one of the robbers knocked him to the ground with his gun. After taking $45 from Higgs’s wallet, the robbers ordered him to strip off his clothes.

As the robbers were searching his clothing for more money, Higgs said, he heard a side door to the house open and one of the robbers yell, “Get back, bitch!”

The robbers then left him. “There was a short period of silence and the shooting started,” Higgs later testified. After the robbers fled, Higgs went to the door and began ringing the bell, yelling for Steward. Then he saw bullet holes in the door. Inside, Steward was dead.

The crime was one of several street robberies and shootings in a brief span of time in Detroit and led to the arrests of several men. The following day, police arrested 26-year-old Michael Ray Richard after he attempted to rob a man on the street in the 3600 block of Farnsworth Street. The intended victim grabbed Richard’s arm and his handgun and lifted it up in the air. During the struggle, the gun discharged. People came outside and helped subdue Richard until police arrived.

On October 7, 1982, police said a firearms analysis linked Richard’s gun to the bullet that killed Steward. Richard denied involvement at first, but during interrogation said that he drove the getaway car and that the two robbers who committed the crime were 24-year-old Willie Towns and his 19-year-old brother, Kevin Towns.

On October 10, police arrested Willie Towns and Higgs identified him as one of the robbers. On October 13, police executed a search warrant at the residence of Kevin Towns. Kevin was not there, but a third brother, 20-year-old Parrish Towns was present. Because Parrish Towns resembled a composite sketch of one of the robbers—Parrish and Kevin Towns were approximately the same height and weight—Parrish was taken to the police station.

On October 14, Parrish was placed in a live lineup. Higgs was told that there was a suspect in the lineup. Higgs said that Parrish “looks like” one of the robbers based on his height and weight, but that he was only “reasonably sure” of his identification. Higgs also said he “could not be sure of any identification” he made. Higgs later viewed a photographic lineup and focused on two photos as possible suspects. Neither photograph was of Parrish or Willie Towns.

Willie and Parrish were charged with first-degree murder, armed robbery, and commission of a crime with a firearm. Kevin Towns and Michael Richard were not charged.

In April 1983, Willie and Parrish went to trial in Recorder’s Court in Detroit. No physical or forensic evidence linked either man to the crime. Higgs gave an emotional account of the crime, breaking down in sobs when he spoke about discovering Steward’s body. He identified Willie and Parrish as the gunmen.

The day before the trial began, Michael Richard called Parrish Towns’s mother from the city jail. He wondered why Parrish was still in jail since Richard had told police Willie and Kevin Towns committed the crime and that Parrish was not involved. He said he would testify to that if called as a witness.

Parrish Towns’s defense attorney was informed of Richard’s statement, but did not call him as a witness. Instead, he presented alibi witnesses who testified that on the day of the crime, Parrish helped a friend move into a new home and didn’t finish the job until about 1 a.m.—several hours after the shooting.

In rebuttal, the prosecution called a police officer who testified that he took a statement from Parrish after he was arrested. At that time, according to the officer, Parrish said that he was at an arcade on the night of the crime.

On April 22, 1983, the jury convicted Willie and Parrish of first-degree murder, armed robbery and committing a crime with a firearm. They were both sentenced to life in prison without parole.

After Parrish lost his appeal in the Michigan Court of Appeals, he filed a federal petition for a writ of habeas corpus. In June 2005, U.S. District Judge Avern Cohn granted the petition and ordered a new trial.

Judge Cohn ruled that Parrish’s trial defense attorney had provided an inadequate legal defense by failing to even interview Richard before deciding not to call him as a witness at the trial. The judge said it was “clear that Towns’s counsel never talked to Richard, despite his several statements indicating that he would and that he needed to speak to Richard in order to know if it was in Towns’s best interest to have Richard testify.”

On September 17, 2003, Judge Cohn allowed Towns to be released on bond. The prosecution appealed the ruling and on January 5, 2005, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit upheld the granting of the writ. On January 8, 2007, the prosecution dismissed the charges against Parrish.

In 2016, the state of Michigan enacted a law allowing wrongfully convicted individuals to file suit to obtain compensation. Towns filed a claim that was settled in December 2019 for $509,602.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 4/13/2020
State:Michigan
County:Wayne
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Robbery, Illegal Use of a Weapon
Reported Crime Date:1982
Convicted:1983
Exonerated:2007
Sentence:Life without parole
Race/Ethnicity:Black
Sex:Male
Age at the date of reported crime:20
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No