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Gilbert Poole, Jr.

Other Michigan Exonerations with False or Misleading Forensic Evidence
On the morning of June 7, 1988, joggers discovered the body of 35-year-old Robert Mejia in the woods behind his apartment complex in Pontiac, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit. He had been stabbed to death, including a slashing of his carotid artery, and he had also been bitten through the sleeve of his shirt on the right arm above the elbow.

Crime-scene technicians found blood on several small rocks near Mejia’s body and in his pants. Mejia was gay, and his pants were pulled down below his waist, which a medical examiner said was consistent with a robbery or killing based on sexual orientation.

Mejia had last been seen alive at Popper’s Lounge in the early morning of June 6, talking with a man that patrons and employees of the bar said they had not seen before. They described this man as looking like a drifter or a member of a motorcycle gang, with jeans, boots, a black leather vest and some sort of biker cap. They said the man had a “bushy beard,” “full mustache,” and hair “feathered on the side and long in the back.”

One of Mejia’s friends, Robert Lisk, told police that the man gave him a bad vibe, and he implored Mejia not to leave with the stranger.

Mejia lived with his mother, Christina Mejia, and she told police that she heard her son call out “I’m home,” at about 1:30 a.m. on June 6. But she did not actually see Robert, and when she looked for him about 30 minutes later, she did not find him.

Based on the descriptions provided by Lisk and others at Poppers, police developed two composite sketches, which were published in the Oakland Press.

Six months later, Connie Cook called police in High Point, North Carolina, and said she had information on an unsolved murder in Michigan. Cook and her boyfriend, 23-year-old Gilbert Poole Jr., had lived in Pontiac until a few days after Mejia’s death, then moved south to find work and be closer to Poole’s family. Cook said that Poole had come home in the early morning of June 6 with scratches on his face and arms and confessed to killing a man during a robbery.

Poole was arrested on December 27, 1988 in North Carolina and charged with murder in Mejia’s death.

His trial began on May 30, 1989 in Oakland County Circuit Court. The state’s case was based on Cook’s testimony, the testimony of witnesses who said they saw Poole at the bar with Mejia, and bitemark analysis of the wound on Mejia’s arm.

Cook testified that in early June 1988, both she and Poole were unemployed and nearly out of money. She said that on June 5, after an argument, Poole told her he was going out to get some money. She said he came back hours later and told her that he had gone to a gay bar and picked up a man. They had left in the man’s car and driven to the man’s apartment to get some cocaine. They then went to the woods behind the apartment. She said Poole told her he tried to rob the man. They fought, scratching and biting, and Poole said he stabbed the man and watched “the guy drown in his own blood.”

She said Poole told her he took the man’s car keys and then drove his car back to Popper’s. She said she first didn’t believe Poole, but he showed her his watch, which was covered in blood. Cook said he put the watch in the console of their car and later cleaned it with a ring cleaner.

Under cross-examination, Cook acknowledged that she had initially told police that the murder she said Poole confessed to had happened in January, not June. She was also questioned about why she moved with Poole to North Carolina just days after he confessed to a heinous crime, and she said she was scared because Poole told her she could be charged as an accessory.

Lisk said he saw Poole talking with Mejia on the night he disappeared. He testified that Mejia introduced Poole as “Lee,” which is Poole’s middle name, but that he did not mention that detail to police when they first interviewed him. He said he remembered the name only after reading articles about Poole’s arrest in the newspaper, which included his middle name.

Charles York, a bartender, testified that he saw Mejia and Poole talking at the bar before leaving at about 1:40 a.m. But he said Poole was wearing shorts and a blue shirt, not the biker outfit described by Lisk.

Kerry Johnson, the other bartender working that night, testified that he didn’t see Poole at the bar. He said he saw Mejia leave with a group of people; he wasn’t sure who. That was different from his statement at a preliminary hearing, where he said Mejia had left with Hank Clayton. Other witnesses said Mejia and Clayton had dated briefly and that Mejia might have shunned Clayton the night he died.

Clayton testified that he saw Poole at the bar that night, but his testimony clashed with his initial statement to police, where he described the man talking to Mejia as clean-cut. Mike DePlaunty testified that he saw Poole at the bar, but that Mejia left Popper’s before 12:30 a.m., and that Poole was still there.

Melinda Jackson, a forensic serologist with the Michigan State Police testified about the blood and hair analysis of several pieces of evidence. She said that Mejia had Type O blood, which was consistent with all the blood found on his shirt; Poole was Type AB.

She said that fingernail clippings from Mejia also showed type O, again excluding Poole as a contributor.

Jackson said traces of iron but not blood were found inside Poole’s watch. Police had also seized Poole’s car and found traces of blood inside the center console. Jackson testified that the blood was Type O, the same as Mejia’s, although she acknowledged under cross-examination that 43 percent of the white population had Type O blood. She also testified that no hairs found in Mejia’s car were consistent with Poole.

Separately, the state introduced a report from David Woodford, another forensic analyst with the Michigan State Police. A section of the report said that blood on one of the pebbles found in Mejia’s pockets or near his body did not match the blood type of Meija or Poole.

Dr. Allan Warnick testified about the bitemark found on Mejia’s upper arm. At the time, Warnick was the only certified forensic odontologist in Michigan, and a consultant to several police departments, including the Michigan State Police. He had also led the team that used dental records to identify passengers killed in the crash of Flight 255 at Detroit Metropolitan Airport on August 16, 1987.

Warnick told jurors how he had taken dozens of photos of the wound on Mejia’s arm, made a cast of the bitemark, and then obtained an impression of Poole’s teeth after his arrest. Warnick explained his comparison techniques and noted the similarities between the cast and the impression. “This could not be done coincidently because everybody’s teeth are unique, and there’s been studies that the individuals are very, very unique,” Warnick said. “The chance of the same individual making all these patterns are 2.1 billion to one.”

Later, he testified, “So we come up with numerous points of matching with no inconsistencies at all, and it’s my expert opinion that the marks made on the victim’s arm were made by Mr. Poole.”

Under cross-examination from Thomas Wilhelm, Warnick acknowledged that skin is not a good medium for creating a dental impression, and that any twisting or movement during the biting itself could create a distortion. He said death itself caused the tissue to shrink, but only by about 1 percent. Warnick also said that forensic odontology relied on more subjective interpretation than fingerprint analysis.

Poole testified and denied killing Mejia or ever telling Cook that he killed a man. He said that the first time he heard the name Robert Mejia was when the police came to arrest him. He said he first thought that the reason the police had showed up at his place of employment was because Cook had taken out a warrant against him for throwing her out of their house.

During closing arguments, Wilhelm said the case was about lovers and scorn. He said that Clayton was the true killer, attacking Mejia after being rejected by him earlier that evening. The prosecution’s theory about the killing being a robbery gone bad didn’t hold up, he said. Mejia was still wearing a gold watch. His wallet was found inside the glove box of his car. The compartment was locked, but a robber would have pried it open when rifling through the vehicle. Wilhelm said Cook made up the story about Poole’s confession, cobbling it together from what she read or heard about from relatives in Michigan. It didn’t make sense, he said, for her to move to North Carolina with a person who had just confessed a murder to her.

Assistant District Attorney Charles Spiekerman said: “Three people in the bar would lie and convict an innocent man of a crime like this, just to solve this crime; to avenge their friend. Connie Cook is a monster who would make up a story to put Gilbert Poole away, when she knows he didn’t do it. So they all lied, she’s a monster, and Dr. Warnick is incompetent. That’s the defense."

Spiekerman also said: “Dr. Warnick testified, and I won’t go through it again, that based on his experience, those teeth bit the victim. No other way around it. And then he went back to the basis for this type of testimony, the book where they did the study with all the identical twins, and they got the mathematicians to say what’s the possibility that somebody else has teeth exactly like that. And, if I recall, it was two and one half billion to one. That makes the lottery look like a sure thing. It was his teeth.”

Spiekerman also referenced Woodford’s forensic report but misstated its findings and said it held significance “because it does talk about some of the blood types on the stones; and it all matches Bob Mejia’s blood type.”

The jury convicted Poole on June 6, 1989, of first-degree murder, and he was later sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Poole began a series of appeals through the Michigan courts. His first appeal was denied in 1993. In 2005, he petitioned the court to test DNA evidence from the case, including a blood sample found on one of the pebbles. The case wound its way through appellate courts, with a series of rulings stating that because the blood evidence had already excluded Poole as a contributor, further testing was of nominal value.

Separately, in 2008, Poole filed a pro se petition for a writ of habeas corpus in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan. Since Poole’s conviction nearly 20 years earlier, bitemark analysis had been widely discredited as lacking a scientific basis, and the use of Warnick’s testimony had formed the basis of other successful appeals and dismissals, including the exonerations of Michael Cristini and Jeffrey Moldowan.

Poole said Warnick’s testimony was erroneous and amounted to “trial by mathematics.” He also said Wilhelm was ineffective for failing to challenge Warnick’s appearance as an expert witness and for stipulating to the admittance of Woodford’s report, which was then misconstrued by the prosecutor in closing arguments.

On August 9, 2011, U.S. Magistrate Judge Laurie Michelson recommended that the court deny Poole’s petition. While agreeing that Warnick’s testimony was flawed, she wrote that the other evidence connecting Poole to the murder was too strong, and that he hadn’t met the standard for granting a habeas petition. “In short, while it might be reasonable for a juror to conclude that, stripped of Dr. Warnick’s testimony, the remaining evidence does not prove petitioner guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, that falls short of the actual innocence standard.”

The Sixth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals rejected Poole’s appeal in 2013, and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear his case.

In 2015, the Michigan Supreme Court reversed a ruling from the Michigan Court of Appeals and said testing could proceed. It said lower courts had been using the wrong standards to determine when additional testing is appropriate. By this time, Poole was being represented by the Cooley Law School Innocence Project at Western Michigan University.

The Michigan State Police conducted DNA testing in 2016 on the bloody stones and on grass collected at the crime scene. The results were then reviewed by Dr. Karl Reich with Independent Forensics, who reported that Poole was “excluded as a contributor to all tested samples and there is evidence of an unknown contributor who is not the defendant or the victim.”

Marla Mitchell-Cichon of the Cooley Innocence Project then filed an application with the Michigan Attorney General’s Conviction Integrity Unit, which was created in 2019 and reviews wrongful conviction claims for cases outside of Detroit and Wayne County.

The CIU and Cooley submitted a joint stipulation on May 26, 2021, asking Oakland County Circuit Court Judge Rae Lee Chabot to vacate Poole’s conviction and dismiss his charge. Judge Rae Chabot approved the motion the same day, and a few hours later, Poole was released from Cotton Correctional Center in Jackson. It was the first exoneration attributed to the work of the CIU.

Assistant Attorney General Robyn Frankel, the director of the Conviction Integrity Unit, said: “On behalf of the state of Michigan, we are deeply sorry for your pain and for the years of your life that have been taken away from you. We can’t ever give it back.”

Mitchell-Cichon told Judge Chabot that Poole never gave up but suffered greatly as friends and family moved on. His parents died while he was incarcerated. “Essentially, your honor, he has lost everything. We are his family. We are very proud to stand in that role today,” she said.

Poole said: “I spent decades learning, reading, studying law, but none of that was working for me. It wasn’t until I surrendered to a higher power and God stepped in and sent me a band of angels to look past the rules and regulations and looked to see who was standing in the furnace. I was standing in the furnace. I didn’t belong here. I have to thank each and every one of you, without you this wasn’t possible.”

On June 15, 2021, Poole filed a claim for compensation from the state of Michigan. On July 20, 2021, he was awarded $1,597,577.

In May 2023, Poole filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against Oakland County, the city of Pontiac, and police officers seeking damages for his wrongful conviction.

– Ken Otterbourg

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Posting Date: 6/18/2021
Last Updated: 5/24/2023
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:1988
Sentence:Life without parole
Age at the date of reported crime:23
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:Yes*