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Lacino Hamilton

Other Wayne County, Michigan exonerations
On Tuesday, June 28, 1994, police in Detroit, Michigan were summoned to the home of 54-year-old Willa Bias after her son, who lived in Missouri, had been unable to contact her for their weekly telephone call on Sunday evening.

Police found her body in the kitchen. She had been shot several times. Every room in the home, except for the front room, was ransacked. One police report said that Bias’s car was in the garage with the hood, driver’s door and trunk open. Pliers were found under the front seat and wires had been pulled out from under the dashboard.

Based on the autopsy, Bias was believed to have been killed about 24 hours before the body was found, with the possibility that the time of death was anywhere from 36 to 12 hours from the time of discovery. Police determined that Bias had called and left a message for a friend on Sunday, June 26, 1994 between 11 a.m. and 12:30 p.m.

At 2:55 p.m. on Friday, July 8, 1994, Bias’s foster son, 19-year-old Lacino Hamilton, was arrested after a car in which he was the passenger was stopped. He was taken to the 9th floor detention area at Detroit Police headquarters.

At 9:15 a.m. on the following day, Oliver Cowan, another prisoner in the detention area, claimed to a Detroit police detective that Hamilton had admitted that he killed Bias. Cowan said Hamilton “confessed” in the jail three days before—even though Hamilton had been in custody for less than 24 hours. In addition, Cowan said that Hamilton said he “smoked” his foster mother seven to 10 days before—which was not possible based upon the estimate of her time of death.

Despite these glaring errors, police used Cowan’s claims to charge Hamilton with murder and use of a firearm in the commission of a felony.

At a preliminary examination on July 29, 1994, Cowan testified that he started talking to Hamilton because Darnell Thompson, who was a friend of Hamilton’s, told Cowan to talk to Hamilton and to ask “what was up.” Cowan said that he meant to ask about a carjacking case, but claimed that Hamilton began talking about the murder instead.

Cowan, who had been in the holding cells for six months, was asked if Hamilton said that anything happened on June 28. Cowan said that Hamilton “mentioned something about he killed his foster mother.” However, the autopsy showed the killing had occurred at least one and maybe two days earlier, and not on June 28.

Cowan said that Hamilton told him that he went to the house to get “money or something” from her, and she refused. They “got into it” and he “smoked her.” Cowan said that Hamilton said he took jewelry, money, a television, a VCR and other valuables. However, crime scene photos showed these items still at the home.

Asked what happened next, Cowan said he couldn’t remember. When the prosecutor asked if Hamilton waited or left, Cowan said that Hamilton told him that he killed Bias around 2 p.m. and then waited in the house until 6 or 7 p.m. for her son to come home so he could kill him, too—although Bias’s son lived out of state and was not going to come home.

Cowan gave differing versions of which detectives he talked to and differing accounts of what Hamilton’s friend, Darnell Thompson, had said. At one point he claimed he didn’t know who Thompson was and at another point, he said he knew him, but only as Darnell.

Cowan said he was a witness against “two or three” other people who had “confided” in him.

Detroit police investigator James Fleming testified that he took the statement from Cowan around 9 a.m. on July 9, 1994. He said Cowan was a trustee, which gave him more privileges than other detainees. Fleming said he did not ask Cowan to talk to Hamilton.

Hamilton went to trial on October 23, 1995 in Wayne County Recorder’s Court. The prosecution said it would introduce the transcript of Cowan’s testimony at the preliminary examination because Cowan had died in January 1995.

Hamilton’s attorney, Robert Slameka (who was later disbarred after accumulating more than a dozen reprimands and admonishments for substandard defense work) objected, and claimed that there had been inadequate cross-examination of Cowan at the preliminary examination due to numerous objections by the prosecution. The judge overruled Slameka’s objection and also refused to recess the trial to allow for an interim appeal.

When Slameka asked that the prosecution turn over Cowan’s criminal history and disclose whether Cowan had received any benefits or favorable treatment, the judge ruled that if the prosecutor had that information, it would be available. However, before anything further could be said, the judge ordered the jury to come into the courtroom and Slameka was not allowed to finish his argument.

The prosecution’s case relied primarily upon Cowan’s preliminary examination testimony. There was no physical or forensic evidence that connected Hamilton to the crime.

On October 31, 1995, the jury convicted Hamilton of second-degree murder and possession of a firearm during a felony. He was sentenced to 50 to 80 years in prison on the murder charge and two years to be served consecutively on the firearm charge.

The Michigan Court of Appeals upheld the convictions and sentence in December 1997.

Hamilton wrote thousands of letters to journalists, innocence projects, and others seeking help on his case. Among those was Claudia Whitman, the director of the National Capital Crime Assistance Network. Whitman began investigating the case. A sign was put up in the neighborhood where Bias had lived asking for information. In 2013, in response to the sign, a man reached out. During an interview with an investigator, that man identified Lonnie Bell as the killer.

The witness said that he saw a man he knew as Lonnie Bell leaving Bias’s home shortly after the murder. According to the witness, he mentioned this to Bell not long after as they were consuming cocaine. The witness said Bell admitted committing the crime and said that he went into the house looking for $70,000 in drug money that Hamilton was rumored to have hidden in the basement. Bell also said that if the witness ever said anything, he would be killed as well. The witness claimed that he was so fearful of Bell that shortly after that conversation, he moved to Monroe, Michigan. Bell was murdered in May 2003.

The investigation uncovered evidence that Cowan, the jailhouse informant, had pled guilty to burglary and received one year in prison. In addition, a parole violation was ignored, although he had been facing up to 15 years. Cowan, who had at least 28 aliases, apparently didn’t even serve that sentence and instead was allowed to walk free.

During her investigation, Whitman located a man who said he was in the detention area with Cowan in 1994 on the day when Hamilton was arrested. The man said that Cowan told him that if he were willing to “help” homicide detectives with some of their murder cases, the detectives would help him with his case. The man said Cowan told him he didn’t have to worry if he didn’t have any information; detectives would take care of that.

The man said that later that day, Detective Fleming summoned him and Cowan to the intake area and asked the man if he was “ready to earn his keep.” The man said Fleming asked if either one of them wanted to take the Hamilton case and Cowan volunteered.

The man said Fleming then gave Cowan two copies of a pre-written statement. Cowan was instructed to sign one and to memorize the other in preparation for a preliminary hearing.

In 2014, Michigan attorneys Mary Chartier and Takura Nyamfukudza agreed to take Hamilton’s case. They developed evidence that Cowan was a serial jailhouse informant and had testified in several other cases that fellow inmates had confessed their crimes to him.

The unreliable nature of jailhouse informants was well-documented in the Wayne County Prosecutor’s office, although prosecutors continued to allow them to testify. In February 1995—prior to Hamilton’s trial—Robert Agacinski, then deputy chief of the Wayne County Prosecutor’s office, had written a memorandum expressing concern about the use of jailhouse informants. He noted that police were exceeding their authority and violating office policy by promising leniency to the informants without the approval or even the knowledge of the prosecution. The internal memo noted that “the snitches do lie about overhearing confessions and fabricate admissions in order to obtain police favors or obtain the deals promised.”

The memo specifically mentioned how prisoners were transferred to the 9th floor detention area at police headquarters and were fabricating false confessions. Among the informants named in the memo was Cowan. A second memo was written in March—more than six months before Hamilton’s trial—by another prosecutor who also detailed concerns about the failure to disclose deals and promises, noting that doing so would require reversals of convictions.

A transcript of a sentencing hearing for Cowan, which occurred after Hamilton was convicted, showed that a police officer said that “there are six people at this point incarcerated for murder that probably would not be without [Cowan’s] continued cooperation and testimony.”

Hamilton’s defense team said evidence showed that the prosecutor who had questioned Cowan at the preliminary examination had made numerous objections to defense questions that prevented the defense from learning about Cowan’s involvement as an informant in other cases. However, at the time, Cowan said he was a witness in only two or three others cases, which was false.

Records showed that when Cowan died, he was a resident of a nursing home. This was while he was supposed to be serving his one-year sentence, but there was no record of him ever being released. Hamilton’s legal team concluded that Cowan had been allowed to walk out of the holding cells unimpeded—he never reported to the Wayne County Jail.

In 2018, after the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office created a Conviction Integrity Unit, Chartier and Nyamfukudza asked the head of the unit, Valerie Newman, to re-investigate the case. They gave Newman a copy of a motion for relief from judgment that they had been preparing to file, as well as all of the evidence that had been discovered. The motion detailed the evidence of Cowan’s history and the failure to disclose his background.

“Mr. Cowan was a professional witness,” the motion said. “He was paid for his testimony by the most valuable commodity for a man in custody – time. His motives were sinister and resulted in him fabricating a confession and sending an innocent man to prison for his own selfish gain.”

In March 2019, during the Conviction Integrity Unit investigation, fingernail scrapings from Bias were discovered. The evidence showed that Bias had struggled with her attacker. The scrapings had never been disclosed to the prosecution or Hamilton’s defense.

At that point, the Cooley Law School Innocence Project at Western Michigan University became involved because the project had received a federal grant to perform DNA testing. The Michigan State Police laboratory performed DNA testing and reported that Hamilton could not be excluded from the DNA found under the right fingernails. The defense team then requested the complete file involving the testing and sent it to Dr. Greg Hampikian, co-director of the Idaho Innocence Project, a professor of Biology and Criminal Justice at Boise State University, and an expert in DNA analysis. In May 2020, Hampikian said that Hamilton had been excluded as the source of male DNA found under in the fingernail scrapings taken from Bias’s right hand. Ultimately, the CIU agreed with Hampikian.

On September 30, 2020, during a virtual hearing, Wayne County Circuit Judge Tracy Green, acting on a joint request of the prosecution and the defense, vacated Hamilton’s convictions and the case was dismissed.

"I'm a little overwhelmed, but I'm extremely grateful," Hamilton said during the hearing.

Chartier previously had represented Dennis Tomasik, who was exonerated in 2017. Chartier said Hamilton “wrote 5,000 letters to everyone to get them to take his case. Lucky for him, he hit upon Claudia Whitman."

Hamilton's trial defense attorney, Robert Slameka, also represented three other men who were wrongfully convicted and exonerated–Marvin Cotton, Anthony Legion and Davontae Sanford.

Two other men were exonerated in 2020 who had been convicted on false testimony from jailhouse informants. Ramon Ward was exonerated in February 2020 and Bernard Howard was exonerated in December 2020.

In October 2020, Hamilton filed a claim for compensation from the state of Michigan. He was awarded $1,237,020 in May 2021.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 10/26/2020
Last Updated: 7/27/2021
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Illegal Use of a Weapon
Reported Crime Date:1994
Sentence:52 to 82 years
Age at the date of reported crime:19
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:Yes*