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Kenneth Nixon

Other Wayne County, Michigan CIU exonerations
At 10 minutes to midnight on May 19, 2005, someone hurled a Molotov cocktail at a second-floor window of a home at 19428 Charleston Street in Detroit, Michigan. The gasoline bomb exploded and the fire killed two children in the home. The children, 20-month-old Tamyah Vaughn and her 10-year-old brother, Raylond, died of burns and smoke inhalation.

Four others in the home escaped unharmed: 35-year-old Naomi Vaughn, and her three other children, 14-year-old Tanzania, 13-year-old Brandon, and 6-year-old Ravon.

The police officer in charge of the scene, Kurtiss Staples, took a statement from Brandon. Staples would later testify that when he asked the boy what happened, Brandon said, “I was standing on the front porch. I had opened the door when I seen a car pull in front of the house. I seen Bean get out of the passenger side of the car. He had a glass bottle with a cloth sticking out of the top in his hand. Then Bean threw the bottle at our house through the top window.”

According to Staples, Brandon said “Bean” then got into the passenger seat of a green Plymouth Neon, which then backed down the street and sped off. The car, according to Brandon, belonged to the mother of Bean’s baby son.

Police quickly determined that “Bean” was the nickname for 19-year-old Kenneth Nixon and that the mother of his child was 18-year-old Latoya Caulford. Caulford lived at 19386 Havana Street—three blocks from the scene of the fire.

Around 3 a.m., police armed with a search warrant raided the house on Havana Street. They arrested Nixon, who was visiting there, and confiscated clothing he had been wearing. Ultimately, Nixon and Caulford each were charged with two counts of murder, four counts of attempted murder, and one count of arson. Police towed Caulford’s green Plymouth Neon as well as a tow truck that belonged to Nixon, who worked for a towing and auto repair service.

In September 2005, Nixon and Caulford went to trial in Wayne County Circuit Court. They were tried together, but before separate juries. The prosecution contended that Nixon was angry because Ronrico Simmons, who was Naomi Vaughn’s boyfriend, had a brief sexual relationship with Caulford in January and February of that year. In his opening statement, Wayne County assistant prosecutor Patrick Muscat said that at one point, Nixon allegedly said that the feud would not end until someone was dead.

Detroit police officer Roger McGee testified that he brought his accelerant-sniffing dog, Swifty, to the scene after the fire was extinguished. He said the dog, a yellow Labrador retriever, alerted to the presence of accelerants near a window in the front of the second floor. In the debris below the window, arson investigators discovered the remnants of a green glass bottle, which was believed to be the Molotov cocktail.

McGee said that Swifty later alerted to the front passenger seat and the front passenger floor in the Neon. Later, at the arson headquarters, Swifty also alerted to the presence of a flammable liquid when exposed to Nixon’s clothing.

McGee said that the dog was unerring. “He doesn’t give me a false alert,” McGee said. “Never…His nose is 100 times greater than our noses.”

Simmons testified that he was not at the home when the fire started, but that he was walking toward the house when he saw the flames. He said that Brandon came up to him and reported “that he had seen Mr. Nixon pull up, throw a cocktail at the house, jump back in the car, back up down the street, take off.”

Simmons admitted that he had a brief affair with Caulford and that Nixon had been angry. Simmons admitted that at one point, he smashed the windows out of Nixon’s car. He said that he and Nixon had exchanged angry phone calls and that in March, Nixon said that “it wasn’t over until somebody was dead.”

During cross-examination, Simmons admitted that during his interview with police immediately after the fire, he said nothing about Brandon implicating Nixon in the fire. He did give a second statement the following day, on May 21, 2005, which quoted Brandon as implicating Nixon, he said.

An arson investigator, Frank Maiorana, testified that he was “100 percent, in my mind, that the fire was a humanly caused fire.”

Maiorana said he also talked to Brandon, but that Brandon gave him a different account. Maiorana testified that Brandon told him that “he was upstairs, he was in bed, but he wasn’t sleeping and that he heard a loud boom…he told me that the room immediately erupted into flames and smoke started filling up the second floor.”

Maiorana said that Brandon told him that “he ran down the stairs fleeing for his safety and he said when he got downstairs, he ran out of the house and he saw an individual that was known to him running from the front of the house.” Maiorana said Brandon told him that the person “got into a car and the car backed up, backed up down the street and then turned around and fled down the street.”

Maiorana said he thought that Brandon said the man’s nickname was “Bing.” Maiorana said Brandon said that Bing got into “Bing’s baby’s momma’s car.” Maiorana said that Brandon did not identify the driver of the car.

Brandon testified and admitted he had given different statements at different times. He contended that the truth was that he was upstairs in bed, still awake, when he heard a loud boom. “I ran downstairs, unlocked the door. Then I seen Beans get back into the passenger seat of the car.”

He said he attempted to get back upstairs, but could not get up the stairs to the second floor because of the heat and smoke.

Naomi Vaughn testified that she was awakened in her first floor bedroom by Brandon yelling for help. She claimed that Brandon repeatedly said, “Beans and Toya did this to us,” referring to Nixon and Caulford. Tanzania and Ravon managed to flee from first floor bedrooms, she said.

During cross-examination, Nixon’s defense lawyer elicited testimony suggesting that the firebombing was the result of a spat earlier in the day between Vaughn’s daughter, Ravon, and another neighborhood girl. The two had gotten into a shoving match. As a result, the girl’s father, who was upset, had paid a visit to the Vaughn home. At one point, the man had said, “People’s houses get shot up because of things like this.”

Naomi Vaughn admitted that during her statement to police right after the fire, the first two pages were all about the afternoon incident. And she never mentioned that Nixon or Caulford had any involvement in the fire, she admitted.

Mario Mahdi, a cousin of Caulford, testified that weeks before the fire, he and Nixon were walking by the Vaughn home when Nixon said, ‘He’s going to get his,” apparently referring to Ronrico Simmons.

However, Mahdi then stated that was a false statement, and that he knew that Nixon was at home between 11 p.m. and midnight. He said he had lied because “at that time, I thought he did it.” Mahdi said police gave him “the impression that he did it around three in the morning.”

Testing done by the Michigan State police crime laboratory showed that Nixon’s clothing that had been seized at the time of his arrest was positive for the presence of an accelerant.

Stanley January Jr. testified that he was in the Wayne County Jail when Nixon was brought in. January testified that during a conversation with him on May 23, 2005, Nixon admitted that he set the fire. January said Nixon told him that he didn’t think the children were at home. On August 30, 2005, January told Detective Moises Jimenez of the conversation he had with Nixon back in May.

January said that he was going to testify in another case—a murder trial. The defendant in that case also had confessed to him, January said.

January said that he was facing a robbery charge and that the prosecution had agreed that he would get a sentence of one to 3 ½ years in prison after pleading guilty. His plea agreement was dated August 29, 2005. That sentence was agreed upon because of his anticipated testimony in the murder case and was not related to his testimony in Nixon’s case, January testified.

During cross-examination, January denied that he had heard about the arson fire and the two children’s deaths on the television news. January testified that at the time Nixon confessed to him, they were both housed in a section of the jail where there were no televisions.

Trevor Hill testified for the defense that he had a towing business and that Nixon worked for him. Hill testified that on the evening before the fire, Nixon handled a towing job and then closed up the shop around 9 p.m. Hill said he talked to Nixon after Nixon got home and confirmed that the job had been completed and the shop was locked up for the night.

Basim Alyais, who lived next door to the home where Nixon and Caulford were living on Havana Street, testified that he was on his front porch drinking beer from 7 p.m. until about 12:30 a.m. He said he saw Nixon arrive home between 9:30 p.m. and 10 p.m. and neither Nixon or Caulford left the house.

Lisaanne Caulford-Zaatari, Latoya Caulford’s aunt, testified that she was at the home that evening and gave Nixon’s and Caulford’s infant son a bath. She said that Nixon came home during that time and that she refused to allow him to pick up the baby until Nixon had taken a shower and changed clothes because he was dirty from towing work. Caulford-Zaatari said she left the home at 10 minutes past midnight and that Nixon, Caulford and the baby were in their bedroom.

The defense argued that the presence of accelerants in the Neon and on Nixon’s clothing came from his work for the towing firm, not because he was involved in fashioning and throwing a Molotov cocktail. In fact, the defense noted that a used car battery was sitting on the floor of the front passenger seat at the time the car was impounded by police.

On September 21, 2005, Nixon’s jury convicted him of two counts of murder, four counts of attempted murder, and one count of arson. Caulford’s jury acquitted her of all charges.

At sentencing, Circuit Court Judge Bruce Morrow asked Nixon if he wanted to make a statement. “I would just like you to know you’re about to sentence an innocent man to prison,” Nixon declared. Morrow sentenced Nixon to life in prison without parole.

The Michigan Court of Appeals upheld Nixon’s convictions in March 2007. In 2010, Nixon filed a federal petition for a writ of habeas corpus. The petition said that not long after the trial, January admitted to another prison inmate that his testimony that Nixon had confessed was false.

The inmate, Paul Crump, provided a statement saying that January admitted he learned about the case from a television news report. Crump said that January said he decided to “make up a lie…to try and make a deal with the prosecutor to get his case dropped or try and get the minimum amount of time in exchange for testifying” against Nixon. Crump said January told him that he wanted to get out of custody to attend his daughter’s high school graduation and “that his ex-wife and daughter would be disappointed and furious at him if he missed this hallmark occasion.”

In November 2012, U.S. District Judge Avern Cohn denied the petition. Nixon’s request to appeal the ruling was denied.

In 2018, the Medill Justice Project at Northwestern University interviewed January as part of an investigation of the Nixon case. January admitted that he had seen news coverage of the case before he spoke to Nixon about the case.

The Cooley Law School Innocence Project at Western Michigan University had been working on the case since 2016. In 2018, the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office and the Cooley Innocence Project received a $451,238 grant from the Department of Justice to screen claims of innocence and conduct DNA testing of material evidence in appropriate cases. As part of Cooley’s reinvestigation, the team sought such testing on the Molotov cocktail glass remnants. However, no DNA results were obtained. Ultimately, the Cooley team requested that the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU) reinvestigate the case. By that time, Caulford and Nixon had separately taken polygraph examinations and denied any participation in the fire. Both had been declared to be truthful.

In addition, the Cooley team had uncovered a memo from Officer Staples to the officer in charge of the case, Lt. James Tolbert, that was written on May 23, 2005. In that memo, Staples pointed out that Brandon had given conflicting statements—that the story was inconsistent.

On August 3, 2005—with trial looming in about six weeks, assistant prosecutor Muscat wrote a memo to Tolbert noting that “to be blunt, the case has problems.” On August 30, 2005—27 days later—Detective Jimenez said January revealed for the first time the conversation he claimed to have had with Nixon back in May during which Nixon confessed to the crime.

During the CIU re-investigation of the case, investigators also attempted to interview January, but they were unable to locate him.

In March 2019, the CIU concluded an investigation of another murder case handled by Jimenez. The CIU agreed to vacate and dismiss the conviction of Alexandre Ansari who had been implicated in a 2012 murder by Jimenez, who said he was acting on an anonymous tip.

During a hearing on February 18, 2021 before Judge Morrow, CIU chief Valerie Newman noted that Caulford had passed two polygraph examinations that indicated she was truthful when she said that she and Nixon were home at the time of the fire and were not involved. One of the polygraphs was administered by a former FBI agent, Newman said.

Cooley attorney David Williams declared, “We are very confident that justice is being served today.”

Judge Morrow granted a joint motion from Cooley and the CIU to vacate Nixon’s convictions and to dismiss the charges. Nixon was 28th person to be exonerated as a result of the Wayne County CIU’s work.

In January 2022, Nixon filed a claim against the state of Michigan, seeking compensation for his wrongful conviction. He received $515,000 in compensation in December 2022. In June 2023, Nixon filed a federal civil-rights lawsuit against the City of Detroit and five police officers.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 3/19/2021
Last Updated: 6/29/2023
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Attempted Murder, Arson
Reported Crime Date:2005
Sentence:Life without parole
Age at the date of reported crime:19
Contributing Factors:False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Perjury or False Accusation
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No