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Kelvin Nolen

Other Wayne County, Michigan exonerations
A few minutes before 7 a.m. on November 4, 2014, 26-year-old Mohamed Zokari was fatally shot at a Clark gas station he managed at 13601 East 7 Mile Road in Detroit, Michigan.

A co-worker, Waseem Saleh, had worked the night shift. He told police that Zokari arrived about 6 a.m. Before Saleh left, he saw a man wearing a black hoodie enter the gas station and start sweeping the floor. Saleh said he did not get a clear view of the man’s face because his hood was pulled up.

However, the gas station’s four surveillance cameras caught the man on video, although none of the cameras captured a full view of his face. The videos showed that for the next 50 minutes, the man in the black hoodie continued helping around the store—sweeping, stocking, taking out boxes—which several men routinely did at the station in return for being allowed to sell marijuana on the side.

Zokari worked behind the counter until about 6:55 a.m. when he came out from behind the counter to restock a cooler in the back of the store. At that point, the man in the black hoodie shot Zokari ten times, killing him.

After the shooting, the man attempted to open the cash register, but was unsuccessful. He fled from the store, taking only a nine-millimeter pistol that Zokari kept for protection.

The murder itself was not captured on the cameras, but the audio of the ten gunshots as well as words spoken by the man wearing the hoodie were captured on the recording.

One of the men who intermittently worked at the gas station doing sweeping, stocking and other duties was 26-year-old Kelvin Nolen. In April 2015, several months after the shooting, police interviewed Nolen’s estranged sister, Kenyatta Jones-Hunt, and played the audio content from the surveillance tapes. Jones-Hunt and Nolen had spent much of their childhood in separate foster homes, and they had only occasional contact over the years. At that point, she had not spoken to Nolen in three years. Even so, after listening to the audio and viewing the video, Jones-Hunt identified the man in the hoodie as Nolen.

Nolen was arrested on July 31, 2015 and charged with first-degree murder, larceny, unlawful possession of a firearm, and use of a firearm in the commission of a felony. He went to trial in February 2016 in Wayne County Circuit Court. Jones-Hunt testified that although she could not identify Nolen from any one element individually, when she combined the audio and video “collectively,” she decided the man was Nolen.

She was not 100 percent sure. At a preliminary hearing prior to the trial, she said, “I can’t say that I recognized the voice. I can say that the voice sounded, you know, vaguely familiar.” During that hearing she was asked if the combination of the video and audio footage had helped her make the identification, she had said, “Not completely.”

At the trial, Jones-Hunt testified, “I wouldn’t say that I was able to identify—it was just, you know, my belief.” She admitted that she was not confident that her identification was accurate.

Saleh, Zakori’s co-worker, testified that the man wearing the hoodie was Black and was about 6 feet tall. Saleh said he was aware of only one person—Nolen—who helped Zokari. But Saleh also said he did not see Nolen at the gas station on the day of the crime.

Jonviere Cherelle Ware, Nolen’s girlfriend, testified that she picked up Nolen the day before the murder and that he spent the night with her. She said that on the morning of November 4, Nolen got a phone call informing him that something had happened at the station. She said they drove to the station and learned that Zokari had been killed. Ware said she had seen the video footage and listened to the audio. She said the man was not Nolen—the perpetrator seemed taller, and his nose and shoulders were different from Nolen’s. She also said that the man wearing the hoodie had a hat underneath and that Nolen had never had such a hat.

Nolen testified and denied shooting Zokari. He said he had spent the night with Ware, except for a brief time around midnight when he left to sell marijuana to a friend. He said Ware drove him to make the sale and they quickly returned to her home in Warren, Michigan, several miles from the station. Nolen acknowledged that he worked around the station, but said there were several other men who also did so.

The defense had planned to call Dekenera Leggett as a witness. Leggett had been at the station briefly before the shooting after Saleh left. She had said that she saw the man in the hoodie and that it was not Nolen. However, she refused to come to court—she feared that the real killer would come after her—and police were unable to locate her after a subpoena was issued.

On February 22, 2016, the jury convicted Nolen of first-degree murder, larceny, illegal possession of a firearm and using a firearm in the commission of a felony. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

Not long after the trial, in October 2016, Jones-Hunt recanted her identification of Nolen. In an affidavit, she said that when Detroit Police officers showed her the surveillance footage, she told them that she was unsure who the perpetrator was because the images and audio were unclear. She said in the affidavit that her testimony had been misrepresented at trial.

“It is my belief that the person in the video and images shown to me is unrecognizable and unfamiliar to me and therefore cannot be my brother Kelvin Nolen,” the affidavit said.

In November 2017, the Michigan Court of Appeals upheld the convictions. The court reaffirmed the validity of voice recognition.

In an interview after the decision, Evan Callanan, Nolen’s trial attorney, insisted the court should not have allowed Jones-Hunt’s testimony because she was not certain enough for a jury to find Nolen guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

"I suffered after that loss, believe me," Callanan said at the time. "I believe he was innocent. I did the best I could for that guy."

In an interview with the Detroit News after the appeals ruling, David Moran, a professor of law at the Michigan Innocence Clinic with the University of Michigan Law School, said, "Like eyewitness identification testimony, it's not 100 percent and mistakes are made. But in one respect, it's better than eyewitness identification testimony because [that] involves complete strangers trying to identify somebody."

The appeals court declared, "Because this evidence was sufficient to establish that defendant's sister was sufficiently familiar with defendant's voice to enable her to identify it, a proper foundation was established under [law].”

"Further, given defendant's sister's familiarity with defendant's voice, the fact that she had not spoken to defendant since the winter of 2012 does not compel a conclusion that she would not have been able to recognize his voice in April 2015,” the court added.

At the time Moran was interviewed, the Michigan Innocence Clinic was not involved in the case. But years later, Nolen sought help from the clinic and his case was accepted for reinvestigation.

By 2022, the clinic’s legal team had obtained not only the affidavit from Jones-Hunt recanting her trial testimony, but also an affidavit from Leggett saying that she was in the station about 20 minutes before the shooting. She said she came to the station almost every morning on her way to work, that she knew who Nolen was, and that the man in the hoodie was not Nolen.

The clinic also had consulted with two experts in photogrammetry, the science of obtaining physical measurements by studying images and video. Both experts concluded that the man in the hoodie was at least two inches and perhaps as much as six inches taller than Nolen, who was 5 feet 6 inches tall.

Dr. Eugene Levin, an associate professor in the College of Engineering and the school of Technology at Michigan Technological University, estimated the gunman to be 5 feet 10 inches tall, plus or minus two inches.

Dr. David Fouhey of the University of Michigan estimated the gunman’s height at 5 feet 9 inches with a standard deviation of .7 inch.

In February, the innocence clinic filed a motion for relief from judgment, citing the affidavits and the findings of the photogrammetry experts. The motion said that Nolen’s trial defense attorney had provided an inadequate legal defense by failing to contact such experts for Nolen’s trial.

In June 2021, the case was put on hold to allow the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU) to re-examine the evidence.

On December 19, 2022, the CIU’s chief, Valerie Newman, joined with the innocence clinic in a motion granting Nolen a new trial. The motion said that the prosecution “agrees with Mr. Nolen that given the admitted uncertainty of the original identification that comprised the primary evidence of guilt, the opinions of the reputable experts, and the statement of a newly discovered witness, there is substantial reason to believe that if this information had been known at the time of the original trial, the result may have been different.”

Nolen was released that day. On December 30, 2022, the case was dismissed. He later filed for state compensation and was awarded $338,502 in May 2023.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 1/12/2023
Last Updated: 7/28/2023
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Theft, Weapon Possession or Sale, Illegal Use of a Weapon
Reported Crime Date:2014
Sentence:Life without parole
Age at the date of reported crime:26
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No