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Melvin DeJesus

Other Michigan Exonerations for Murder
On July 11, 1995, Jeremy Wilkes found the body of his mother, Margaret Midkiff, in the basement of her home in Pontiac, Michigan. Midkiff, who was 43 years old, was naked and had a blood-soaked pillowcase tied around her head with a piece of telephone cord. Her clothes were on a bedroom floor. The assailant or assailants had rifled her drawers, but it appeared that no money or valuables had been taken.

An autopsy would later report that Midkiff had been raped vaginally and anally and died from blunt force trauma to her head.

Although the Pontiac Police Department responded to the call, conducted some interviews and collected evidence, the investigation was turned over to the Oakland County Homicide Task Force and then to the Special Investigations Unit of the Oakland County Sheriff’s Department.

Wilkes told investigators that he last spoke with his mother on the morning of July 8, a Saturday, and became concerned a few days later after he hadn’t heard from her. Wilkes said that when he went to check on Midkiff on July 11, he was joined by 21-year-old Melvin DeJesus, who was his friend and Midkiff’s neighbor. A few days later, DeJesus and his brother, 18-year-old George DeJesus, helped Wilkes move his pool table out of Midkiff’s house.

The police quickly identified the DeJesus brothers, and their friend, Brandon Gohagen, as suspects. The DeJesus brothers each had previous convictions for receiving stolen property, and, despite their relationship with Wilkes, they had been involved in a low-level feud with Midkiff.

On November 9, 1995, police executed a search warrant and took blood, hair, DNA, and saliva samples from the DeJesuses, Gohagen and another man, Kevin Harvey. In addition, police took these men’s shoes to look for trace evidence from the crime scene. The DNA samples were sent to Cellmark Laboratories. In September 1996, Cellmark reported that Gohagen was identified as a contributor to a sperm sample obtained from Midkiff. The other men were eliminated as contributors.

Police issued an arrest warrant for Gohagen on September 19, 1996, and arrested him a few days later in Florida, where he had fled with a friend, Terrell Gholston. After being told of the evidence against him, Gohagen gave a statement to police on September 25, 1996. He said that he had raped Midkiff, but the DeJesus brothers had kicked her to death.

Police interviewed Melvin DeJesus that same day. He denied any involvement with the crime. He said he was with his girlfriend, Crystal Sauro, on the evening of July 8, 1995, and that they spent the night together at his house. Police interviewed Sauro, who was 15 years old, the next day. They told her she could be charged with perjury if she testified falsely in defense of Melvin, and they also said Melvin could be charged with statutory rape.

Police also interviewed George DeJesus on September 25, 1996. Like his brother, he denied any involvement in Midkiff’s assault or death. He said he was at a party the night of July 8. 1995, and also that he was with Gohagen for part of the day.

Gohagen signed a proffer agreement with prosecutors on July 22, 1997, which allowed Gohagen to provide information about the crime while limiting the extent to which it could be used as evidence against him. Police arrested Melvin DeJesus that same day, and they arrested George DeJesus on July 23, 1997. Both the DeJesuses were charged with criminal sexual conduct and murder. They were tried together in Oakland County Circuit Court, beginning December 1, 1997.

Gohagen was the state’s principal witness. Under the terms of his proffer agreement, he had pled guilty to second-degree murder and criminal sexual conduct, and had agreed to testify against his friends. He testified that he was hanging out with Melvin and George at their house on July 8, 1995, drinking beer and smoking marijuana, when Melvin mentioned that he didn’t like Midkiff and that he “was going to go over there and mess with her.”

A few minutes later, Gohagen said, Melvin whistled for George and Gohagen. They went over to Midkiff’s house. Melvin was in the doorway of the house. They went into the bedroom and pulled Midkiff out of bed. Melvin order Midkiff to take off her clothes and have sex with Gohagen.

Gohagen testified that both he and Melvin were armed, and that he gave his gun to George prior to having sex with Midkiff. Over the objection of the defense, Gohagen identified the gun from a photograph taken in 1995 of George DeJesus holding two guns.

Gohagen said he had sex with Midkiff. Then George and Melvin bound her feet and hands with cord, and George carried her out of the living room, with Melvin following behind. Gohagen testified that he waited a few minutes, then went into the basement, where Midkiff was tied up and on her knees. He said that Melvin pushed her over, cursed at her, and then began kicking her in the head. Soon, George joined in. Gohagen said he ran out of the house and drove away.

Under cross-examination, Gohagen said he had not been offered any deal prior to his proffer agreement. He also acknowledged previous convictions for unlawfully driving away another person’s vehicle and for being a felon in possession of a weapon.

Melvin and George DeJesus belonged to a Pontiac gang, but Judge Robert Templin granted a defense motion to ban the prosecution from presenting any evidence about their membership in the gang or any gang-related activity.

Angela Rodriguez, Midkiff’s daughter, testified that Midkiff had issues with Melvin DeJesus, and that Midkiff had threatened to call the police on the brothers because she believed they were selling drugs out of their house. She also said Midkiff tried to keep Wilkes, her brother, from hanging out with the DeJesus brothers.

Wilkes testified he saw the brothers almost every day. But he also said that he did not associate with them because “they were in a gang and pretty much getting into trouble.” After Wilkes made that statement, the defense moved for a mistrial. Judge Templin denied the request.

There was no physical or forensic evidence connecting either of the DeJesus brothers with the crime. Technicians had found 28 fingerprints at the crime scene. Of the eight that were usable, only three could be identified: two were from Wilkes, and one from Midkiff.

Dr. Kanu Virani, the deputy chief medical examiner for Oakland County, testified that Midkiff died from blunt force trauma and that her injuries were consistent with being kicked to death. He did not say how many times she had been kicked. Virani estimated her time of death as July 8, based on rigor mortis and other post-mortem changes. He testified the bruising in Midkiff’s anal and vaginal areas was consistent with sexual assault. Melvin DeJesus had filed a motion to have an independent forensic examination of Midkiff’s body conducted, but Templin denied the request.

Detective William Harvey with the sheriff’s department testified that after he reviewed the case file, which included crime scene photos, he became convinced that there was more than one assailant. First, Harvey said, it would have been difficult for a single person to control Midkiff and tie her up. Second, he said the photographs indicated that the blows Midkiff received came from multiple angles and locations, indicating more than one attacker.

Under cross-examination, he admitted that while it was possible for Gohagen to have carried Midkiff into the basement by himself, “logic” suggested that wasn’t the case.

Two witnesses for the state testified they saw George DeJesus with scratches in the days after Midkiff’s death. They couldn’t agree on whether the scratches were on his face or his arms. One of these witnesses, Jamie Martin, also testified under cross-examination that Midkiff and Gohagen hated each other.

Gholston testified that he didn’t know there was a warrant for Gohagen’s arrest when they left Michigan for Florida in September 1995. After they were arrested, Gholston said, Gohagen told him that he had been with Melvin and George DeJesus on the night Midkiff was killed and described what had taken place. The defense objected to this as hearsay evidence, but Templin said it was admissible as a prior consistent statement.

Gholston’s version of Gohagen’s account didn’t square with Gohagen’s testimony in several places. Gholston said Gohagen told him that Midkiff was already naked when he arrived at her house, that he left the house after having sex with her only to return and find Melvin kicking her, and that Gohagen didn’t have a gun.

Detective Ron Kouri of the Pontiac Police Department testified that he interviewed Melvin DeJesus on September 25, 1996, after Gohagen made his statement. He said that Melvin told him he had spent the entire evening of July 8, 1995, with his brother and Gohagen, and was prepared to provide an alibi for Gohagen. Kouri said that Melvin’s demeanor “changed completely” after he was told that Gohagen had confessed and implicated Melvin and his brother. Now, Kouri testified, Melvin began trying to distance himself from Gohagen. Kouri testified that he kept no notes from the interview, but typed his report shortly after the interview ended. He also said he didn’t put Melvin’s alibi in the report, and that he was not sure whether the interview was recorded.

Neither brother testified. The defense called four witnesses. One testified that she was at a party with George in the early morning of July 9, 1995, and saw no scratches or cuts on his body. Another woman testified that she had been sexually assaulted by Gohagen after they stopped dating. She testified that she saw Gohagen with a scratch on his neck about the time of Midkiff’s death. A third woman, who said she had sex with Gohagen on July 9, 1995, also said he had a scratch on his neck. A fourth witness denied she had ever been sexually assaulted by Gohagen.

Over the objection of the defense, prosecutor Donna Pendergast had used large photos of the crime scene and of Midkiff in her opening statement, and she returned to those photos in her closing argument, in which she referred to Melvin and George DeJesus as brutal and savage murderers. “When I saw those photographs, in fact all the photographs, I shuddered to think about what type of person could do this to another human being,” she said.

The coroner who conducted Midkiff’s autopsy had taken fingernail clippings, and a forensic scientist who found traces of blood on the nail clippings testified at trial that the amount was insufficient to test. Despite the lack of testing, Pendergast used that evidence, along with the reported scratches on George DeJesus, to tie him to the crime scene.

The jury convicted Melvin and George DeJesus on December 11, 1997, of first-degree murder, first-degree felony murder, first-degree criminal sexual conducts, and three counts of the use of a firearm in the commission of a felony. Each was sentenced to life in prison. Gohagen was later sentenced to 35 to 80 years in prison.

Both brothers appealed, arguing that Templin had erred in allowing the state to use the large photos and the photo of George DeJesus holding two guns. The appeal also said that Pendergast committed misconduct in her closing arguments, when she overreached in describing Midkiff’s final minutes of life and when she called the DeJesus brothers “sadistic executioners.”

On June 18, 1999, the Michigan Court of Appeals affirmed the convictions. It said that Pendergast’s statements were reasonable and within the limits of allowable argument. It said the photo displays, while hard to view, were necessary to understand the crime itself. Allowing the use of the gun photo, the court said, was prejudicial, but harmless error.

The appellate court also said that each brother’s conviction needed to be amended. They could not be convicted of both felony murder and murder in the first degree; the appropriate remedy, based on an earlier court ruling, was to retain the conviction for first-degree murder based on two theories, premeditation and felony murder. But convictions for felony murder and criminal sexual conduct, when the sexual conduct was the underlying felony, violated double jeopardy principles. The court’s ruling left each brother with a single conviction for first-degree murder and a single count of use of a firearm in the commission of a felony. Their life sentences remained in place.

In 2002, each brother filed a request to test the trace blood samples from Midkiff’s fingernails, which they said would show that Gohagen was the murderer.

The brothers also asked for an evidentiary hearing on a post-conviction report produced by Dr. Werner Spitz, a forensic pathologist who had examined the autopsy and concluded that Midkiff was not repeatedly kicked but rather died from a single stomp to the head.

These motions were denied in 2002. The judge who rejected these requests said that even if Gohagen’s DNA was found in the blood samples, it would not disprove the state’s theory of the crime. The judge also said Spitz’s report only went to the credibility of the state’s evidence.

George DeJesus filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan on April 26, 2004. Melvin DeJesus filed a nearly identical petition in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan on April 27, 2004. Both petitions repeated the claims that had formed the basis of their earlier appeals. George’s petition was denied on December 20, 2006; Melvin’s was denied on June 11, 2007.

In 2016, Gohagen’s DNA was tied to evidence collected from the investigation into the rape and murder of 22-year-old Rosalia Brantley, who had died on August 29, 1994. Gohagen was convicted of first-degree murder in Brantley's death in 2017 and sentenced to life in prison.

After this conviction, attorneys and investigators with the Western Michigan University-Cooley Law School Innocence Project, the Michigan Innocence Clinic at the University of Michigan Law School, and the Michigan Attorney General’s Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU) began examining Gohagen’s activities around the time of the Midkiff murder. They found a pattern of sexual assault involving 12 women and additional DNA evidence supporting some of these claims. The Cooley team represented George DeJesus; the University of Michigan team represented Melvin DeJesus.

In stipulations filed on March 22, 2022, the CIU and attorneys for Melvin and George DeJesus moved to vacate their convictions. The motion noted Gohagen’s conviction for Brantley’s murder and his pattern of assaults of other women in the time period of the deaths of Brantley and Midkiff. The motion also said that investigators had found two new witnesses who corroborated George DeJesus’s alibi for July 8, 1995.

The motions said that Gohagen had taken a polygraph test in 1997 as part of his proffer agreement and the Oakland County Prosecutor’s office had been told that Gohagen had answered truthfully. Based on new guidelines, the motion said, the polygraph was now seen as inconclusive.

At a hearing before Judge Martha Anderson of Oakland County Circuit Court, Robyn Frankel, the head of the attorney general’s CIU, said: “On behalf of the state of Michigan, I offer you our deepest apologies for all the years that have been taken from you,” Frankel said. “We'd like to change what happened, but we can’t.”

Anderson granted the motion on March 22, 2022. The Oakland County Prosecutor’s office dismissed the charges, and Melvin and George DeJesus were released from prison later that day.

At the hearing, George DeJesus: “I’m thankful that the truth is finally realized. I realize that justice for us opens up old wounds for the Midkiff family. I just hope one day our families can all heal and we can have a relationship.”

Midkiff’s family monitored the hearing but made no statements. Melvin DeJesus told them: “I hold no animosity. I knew you guys since I was 8 years old. You guys are like my second family. I hope and pray one day we will open the lines of communication.”

In June 2022, each brother was awarded $1,212,225 in state compensation for his wrongful conviction. In November 2022, they filed a federal civil-rights lawsuit against Oakland County and several persons involved in their wrongful convictions.

– Ken Otterbourg

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Posting Date: 4/1/2022
Last Updated: 11/30/2022
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Sexual Assault, Illegal Use of a Weapon
Reported Crime Date:1995
Age at the date of reported crime:21
Contributing Factors:False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Perjury or False Accusation
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:Yes