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Walter Forbes

https://www.law.umich.edu/special/exoneration/PublishingImages/Walter_Forbes_profile.jpeg
In the early morning hours of July 12, 1982, an explosion followed by fire engulfed a two-story apartment building on West Maple Street in Jackson, Michigan. Two occupants, 22-year-old Linda Harris and her three-year-old daughter, Denishia, managed to escape from their second-floor unit. Dennis Hall, 27, who lived with them, was unable to get out. He perished from smoke inhalation.

The fire was immediately classified as arson after a Jackson Fire Department investigator said he found evidence that an accelerant had been poured inside the first floor. The explosion had blown out windows and sent glass flying at least 20 feet away from the building. A blue plastic antifreeze jug was found outside. Lab tests later detected traces of gasoline in it.

Harris told investigators she had been asleep on a living room couch at the rear of the apartment when she heard the explosion and smelled smoke. She said she grabbed her daughter and yelled at Hall, but could not wake him up. She then came outside with her daughter. She said she tried throwing rocks at the bedroom in the front of the apartment where Hall had been sleeping, but could not rouse him.

Four days later, police received an anonymous tip that the owner of the building, David Jones, had paid Harold Shouse to set the fire. Police questioned Jones, who admitted he knew Shouse and Shouse’s brother, Daniel, because they both rented property from him. Jones said that Harold Shouse had worked odd jobs for him, and that Harold had borrowed money from Jones in the past. Jones denied hiring anyone to set the fire.

Jones told police that he had just returned from vacation, that he had no financial problems, and that he owed $7,000 on the mortgage.

Three months later, 19-year-old Annice Gibson told police that she was walking home from a bar after 2 a.m. that morning when she saw three men at the house setting the blaze. She identified them as 25-year-old Walter Forbes, “Kenny Boy,” and “Orange Driver.” On November 9, police arrested Forbes as well as Orlando Hines and Barney Jones after determining that Hines was known as “Kenny Boy” and Jones was nicknamed “Orange Driver.”

After Barney Jones passed a polygraph examination, he was released. He said that he was not involved with the fire and he had only spent time with Forbes when they attended Jackson Community College together.

Police said Forbes and Hines failed their polygraphs. Both were charged with felony murder and arson.

In May 1983, they went to trial in Jackson County Circuit Court. The defense did not challenge that the fire was an arson. The prosecution’s case relied almost solely on the testimony of Gibson. She told the jury that she saw Forbes, Hines, and Barney Jones come out of the bushes at the apartment building around 2 a.m. as she walked home. She said that Hines and Jones were carrying red gasoline cans and that she heard Forbes say he was going into the building to set the fire.

David Jones testified that he received $50,200 in insurance money, even though the building’s fair market value was about $35,000. He admitted he was operating the property at a loss, but that was of no consequence because he kept the building as a tax deduction. He said that he no longer needed the deduction because he was retired.

The defense attempted to show that David Jones was a more likely suspect because he had a motive—the high insurance payout. The prosecution contended that Forbes had a more likely motive—Hall had shot Forbes about a month before the fire, and Forbes had cooperated in the police investigation of the shooting.

Forbes, who was a full-time student at Jackson Community College, testified and denied setting the fire. He said that after he testified in court against Hall, he had put the incident behind him.

On May 13, 1983, the jury acquitted Hines and convicted Forbes of arson and murder. Forbes was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

In August 1983, Forbes’s defense attorney moved for a new trial based on statements by a new witness, Charles Luft. Luft said he had told Jackson Fire Inspector Donald Sexton that on the night of the fire, Harold Shouse confided that David Jones, the building’s owner, had paid him $1,000 to set the fire. Luft also said the information had been called into a police tip line. The prosecution contended that there had been trial testimony from a different detective that Harold Shouse had been investigated as a possible suspect and was eliminated. The defense claimed that had Luft’s identity been known, he could have been called as a witness. The motion for new trial was denied.

The Michigan Court of Appeals upheld Forbes’s convictions In January 1986.

In August 2010, Forbes sought help from the Michigan Innocence Clinic at University of Michigan Law School. In 2016, the clinic took on Forbes as a client. Forbes’s family had learned that David Jones had been convicted of another arson for profit in 1988 in Livingston County. Innocence Clinic law students found police and court records confirming this conviction. In 2017, Gibson—after rebuffing previous interview requests—recanted her trial testimony. She said that she falsely implicated Forbes, Hines, and Barney Jones after two men, Walt Robinson and Roger Westbrook, threatened to kill her, her children, and other members of her family.

Innocence Clinic director Imran Syed filed a motion for relief from judgment in 2019 based on the recantation as well as the evidence of the conviction of David Jones for the 1988 arson in Livingston County, Michigan. The records of that prosecution showed that two others who conspired with Jones and were granted immunity said that Jones had admitted he was responsible for the arson for which Forbes was convicted. The suspected arsonist, Clayton McReynolds, died in the 1988 fire. Police believed that McReynolds set the fire to repay a debt to Jones. By the time the Innocence Clinic learned of the subsequent arson, David Jones was dead.

During an evidentiary hearing in May 2020, Gibson, whose last name had since changed to Kennebrew, testified that her testimony implicating Forbes was “all just a lie…because Walter didn’t do anything.” She said she never saw the fire and didn’t know of it until the day after.

She said that Robinson and Westbrook wanted to get Forbes “out of the way,” but she did not know why. She said she came forward after being contacted by law students at the Innocence Clinic “[b]ecause that man is in there really for nothing---for something he hasn’t done and I’m old enough now to know better, you know?”

“I’ve been wanting to do this,” she testified. “I’ve been holding it in for all these years and when the [Innocence Clinic] people first came to me, I was pushing them away from me. I denied them for years. I ignore [sic] them people for a long time and when they came back to me again, I just went on and told them the truth.”

Terry Anderson, a polygraph examiner who earlier in his career was in the Michigan State police polygraph unit, testified that he administered a polygraph test to Kennebrew in February 2018. Anderson concluded that Kennebrew was truthful when she said she had lied at Forbes’s trial and when she said she never saw the fire.

On November 9, 2020, Jackson County Circuit Court Judge Thomas Wilson ordered Forbes’s convictions vacated and ordered a new trial.

On November 20, more than 37 years after his conviction, Forbes was released from prison pending a new trial. On December 9, 2020, the prosecution dismissed the charges.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 12/12/2020
State:Michigan
County:Jackson
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Arson
Reported Crime Date:1982
Convicted:1983
Exonerated:2020
Sentence:Life without parole
Race/Ethnicity:Black
Sex:Male
Age at the date of reported crime:25
Contributing Factors:False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No