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Corey McCall

Other Exonerations for Murder with Mistaken Witness Identification
https://www.law.umich.edu/special/exoneration/PublishingImages/Corey_McCall.jpg
Around 10 p.m. on March 26, 2005, four men broke into a house in Benton Harbor, Michigan.

Johntae Stevens, who was 32 years old, would later testify that he saw two men enter through the back door and demand to know where the money was. They forced Stevens into the basement, where he saw two other men, one of whom stood over his brother, Rodney Stevens, who was 30 years old. The gunmen then brought Rodney’s son, 12-year-old Juwan Stevens, and 33-year-old Ursulla Allen, who was Johntae’s girlfriend, into the basement.

The four were made to lie on their stomachs. Johntae Stevens said he heard four shots. Rodney and Allen were killed. Juwan Stevens died a few hours later at the hospital. But Johntae was only grazed by a bullet. He would later testify that his flinching might have saved him.

Stevens first told investigators with the Michigan State Police that he couldn’t identify the gunmen because they wore ski masks. But very quickly, after talking with his mother, Stevens said that wasn’t so and that he misled police because he was thinking about taking matters into his own hands.

Stevens said that 20-year-old Andrew Miller, known as “Pumpkin,” was one of the gunmen, and that he recognized Miller from the neighborhood. Miller was arrested on the morning of March 27, 2005, and police continued to search for the other assailants.

Witnesses told police that they had seen Miller with his cousin, 22-year-old Corey McCall, before and after the shooting. On March 30, 2005, Stevens looked at a photo array that contained McCall’s photo but failed to make an identification.

The next month, McCall was in jail on a domestic-violence charge, and police arranged a physical lineup. Now, Stevens identified McCall from his body shape as McCall walked into the observation room. He said he was the “skinny and dark” man at the foot of the basement stairs. In his statements to police after he agreed to cooperate, Stevens had not provided any other description of this man, including his hair style or the clothes he was wearing.

McCall was charged on April 28, 2005, with three counts of first-degree felony-murder, three counts of premeditated murder, assault with intent to commit murder, armed robbery, home invasion, and six counts of using a firearm to commit a felony. Later, Antwan Mims was also charged in the murders, although prosecutors dismissed those charges in November 2005 after Mims was indicted on federal drug and gun charges.

McCall’s trial in Berrien County Circuit Court began in early November 2005. By then, Miller had already been convicted and sentenced to life in prison. McCall’s attorney placed Miller on a list of possible witnesses but never called him to testify.

Stevens testified that McCall was the man he saw at the foot of the basement stairs. He said as he moved past McCall, he got a "glimpse of him when he tried to look off, but I could see his build."

Stevens testified that he recognized McCall because he had seen him hanging around a nearby apartment complex. Stevens said that after the shooting, the assailants moved his car, and a short time later he watched them drive it back up the driveway. He didn’t see which man drove. Stevens said he waited a few minutes to see if the gunmen were gone, then he got in the car and went to get help. Witnesses described him as in shock in the immediate aftermath.

During the investigation, police had found a footwear impression at the crime scene that was later determined to be consistent with shoes worn by Miller. Miller was also in possession of one of the victim’s cell phones. But no forensic or physical evidence tied McCall to the crime.

Lieutenant James Pierson, a forensic analyst with the Michigan State Police, helped process the crime scene and pulled several fingerprints from the house and the car. He said he could not identify any of those prints as being made by McCall.

But the state introduced a report that said gunshot residue was found on a blue coat McCall was wearing at the time of his arrest. The defense argued that was irrelevant. Stevens had not testified about the clothes McCall was wearing, and several witnesses testified that McCall and Miller were part of a chaotic, close-knit swirl of family and friends who borrowed clothes and often just took the nearest jacket at hand when they went out.

Several witnesses testified that they had seen McCall and Miller together before or after the killings and that McCall had handled Miller’s gun.

Dominique Allen testified that McCall and Miller were with her and some other people at Anetta Campbell’s home in the early morning of March 27, 2005. At about 4 a.m., they saw the police lights flashing outside. She said she ran to McCall, who ran to Miller and kept asking him what he had done. Allen said Miller didn’t want McCall to open the door.

McCall did not testify, but the state introduced a statement he made to the police on April 19, 2005. During that interview, McCall told Detective Chris Takemoto of the Benton Harbor Police Department that he had been at the Walmart in nearby Benton Township at about 10:30 p.m. on March 26, and that his friend, Rachel Watkins, bought some baby formula and candy.

But the alibi couldn’t be confirmed. Walmart only kept surveillance video for a month, and the video had been erased by the time police went to the store. Walmart employees testified that the purchases mentioned by McCall were not made that night, although a co-manager said that when she combed through transactions made between 8 p.m. and midnight on March 26, she only looked for powder, not liquid, formula.

In the statement, McCall said he had run into Miller at about 11:15 p.m. on March 26, and that Miller had about $100 in cash. He said they went for a ride and saw the police cars near the crime scene, although McCall said he didn’t know until later about the shootings. He told police that he never saw Miller with a gun. “I didn't have nothin’ to do with nothin’,” McCall said in the statement.

The jury convicted McCall on November 9, 2005 on three counts of first-degree murder and one count of assault with intent to commit murder. He later received three life sentences for the murder convictions.

McCall appealed his conviction, arguing that there was insufficient evidence to convict him. His appeal said Stevens’s identification was shaky and based on flawed procedures by the police in the physical lineup. The appeal also argued that the presence of gunshot residue on his coat did not connect him to the shootings, and that testimony stating he was with Miller before and after the shootings didn’t establish guilt. He also said that his attorney had been ineffective for failing to present expert testimony about the unreliability of eyewitness identification.

On November 8, 2007, the Michigan Court of Appeals denied McCall’s appeal. The court said Stevens’s identification was not strong but was sufficient, and it supported other parts of the state’s case. “Further, defendant was seen with the shooter shortly before and after the shootings. While defendant correctly contends this testimony alone is insufficient evidence to establish guilt, it made it more likely that Johntae was correct in his identification.”

Similarly, in regards to the gunshot residue, the court said it was up to the jury to decide what inference to draw from this evidence, even though it didn’t actually connect McCall to the murders.

In February 2020, Michigan’s Department of Attorney General Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU) received information that McCall was not involved with the murders. The unit worked with the Western Michigan University Cooley Law School Innocence Project to reinvestigate the case.

CIU Agent Gentry Shelby interviewed Miller, who said that he and three other men, all from the Detroit area, had broken into Stevens’s house to steal items. He said it was his intent to kill the occupants and that he fired all the shots.

Miller said that he gave the murder weapon to one of the other men. It later was found to have been used in two separate murders in the Detroit area. In addition, an examination of police reports from beyond Benton Harbor found that items matching the descriptions of goods stolen from Stevens’s house had been seized during the execution of a search warrant on one of these men’s homes.

Police were able to examine the SIM card of Miller’s cell phone, which showed he called one of these men after the murders. Two of the men Miller named as accomplices were dead. The third denied involvement but was already serving a lengthy sentence for a murder conviction and was not be eligible for parole until 2069.

The investigation also found evidence of McCall’s innocence, separate from Miller’s statements.

Through witness interviews and other investigation, Shelby determined that the murders happened around 9:30, as opposed to after 10 p.m., as Stevens testified. Trial testimony had already given McCall an alibi for that time of the night.

Prior to the attorney general’s involvement in the case, McCall had contacted the University of Michigan’s Innocence Clinic. In 2010, the clinic obtained a transaction printout from Walmart that showed a purchase at 10:53 p.m. of baby formula, Hot Tamale candy, and Mountain Dew. While it didn’t provide McCall with an alibi, it corroborated statements he made to police about his whereabouts on the night of the murders.

On June 25, 2021, the attorney general’s office, Cooley Innocence Project director Tracey Brame, and Berrien County Prosecutor Steven Pierangeli submitted a stipulation requesting the court to vacate McCall’s convictions and dismiss the charges.

Judge Angela Pasula of Berrien County Criminal Court granted the motion. McCall, who appeared at the hearing via Zoom, was released from prison later that day. McCall has since filed a claim for state compensation for his wrongful conviction.

“It goes without saying that it is tragic Mr. McCall has served any time in prison,” Pierangeli said. “I fully recognize that setting aside the conviction cannot begin to adequately compensate Mr. McCall for what he has lost. Nothing can restore his lost youth or return to him the years he spent in prison.”

In an interview with Mlive.com, McCall said he spent his years in prison praying and trying to stay out of harm’s way. “Doing time in prison for something you didn’t do, it tends to wear on your mind, mess with your psyche. And you have to build yourself up again to come back to reality.”

– Ken Otterbourg

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Posting Date: 7/9/2021
Last Updated: 7/27/2021
State:Michigan
County:Berrien
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Attempted Murder
Reported Crime Date:2005
Convicted:2005
Exonerated:2021
Sentence:Life
Race/Ethnicity:Black
Sex:Male
Age at the date of reported crime:22
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No