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Derrico Searcy

Other Wayne County, Michigan exonerations
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On December 29, 2009, around 3:40 p.m. 20-year-old LaRita Thomas was driving her minivan on Harper Avenue in Detroit, Michigan when she pulled up behind a car stopped at a red light at the intersection of Van Dyke Avenue. Thomas was driving to work, accompanied by her 38-year-old boyfriend, J.B. Watson, who was in the front passenger seat. Two friends, 20-year-old Willie Williams and 19-year-old Phillip Reed, were in the back seat.

As they waited for the light to change, a man got out of a turquoise-colored car that had stopped along the curb on Harper Avenue. He walked behind the van, held up a nine-millimeter pistol and began firing at the vehicle. At least nine shots were fired. One of them pierced the front passenger seat and struck Watson in the back. Another struck Reed in the hand. By the time the gunfire stopped, the blue car had made a U-turn into the opposite lanes. The gunman trotted over, got into the back passenger seat, and the car sped off.

Meanwhile, Thomas had smashed her car between the car in front of her vehicle and another car that was in the turning lane to her left. She forced the van through the intersection and sped off to Detroit Receiving Hospital. On the way, Thomas struck one more vehicle and blew out a tire. By the time she arrived at the hospital, the tire was shredded, and she was driving on the rim. Still, it was too late. Watson was pronounced dead. Reed was treated for a gunshot wound to his left hand.

Thomas and Williams were uninjured. Police recovered nine shell casings at the scene of the shooting. During interviews with police, Thomas, Williams and Reed said that earlier in the day, a car containing 21-year-old Darrell Ewing and two other men had attempted to cut them off in traffic. Reed, Williams, and Watson were members of a gang known as the Knock Out Boys. Ewing, whose nickname was “Apple,” was a member of a rival gang known as the Hustle Boys.

Both of these gangs had begun several years earlier as groups which earned money by organizing dance parties for young people. Police believed the shooting was the result of a “beef” between the two gangs.

Not long after the shooting, 41-year-old Raymond Love called police to report that he had witnessed the shooting. Love said he and his wife, Jendayi, who was 42, were in a car parked next to the van when the shots were fired. Love said that he had been driving on Harper Avenue when a turquoise car pulled out into traffic from a side street, causing him to swerve to avoid a collision. He said he drove alongside the vehicle for a block or two before the turquoise car pulled over to the curb and stopped. Love said that he pulled into the curb lane ahead of the turquoise car and pulled up behind another car that was stopped at the red light at Van Dyke Avenue. According to Love, he saw a man get out of the turquoise car holding a gun, so he leaned over to try to shield Jendayi. Love said the man fired several shots and then got back into the turquoise car, which by then had made a U-turn onto the opposite side of Harper Avenue, and the car sped away.

The following day, Love and his wife viewed photographic lineups. They identified Ewing as the gunman. Raymond Love identified the driver of the turquoise car as 27-year-old Derrico Searcy, who also was a member of the Hustle Boys.

On December 31, 2009, police arrested Searcy while he was driving a black BMW. In the space between the hood and the windshield, where the windshield wipers were located, police recovered three nine-millimeter shell casings. Police detained Mark Davis, a passenger in the vehicle. An officer began scrolling through Davis’s cell phone and noticed that the name attributed to one number was listed as “Apple.” Although Davis was not charged with any crime, police noted the number for “Apple.”

On January 11, 2010, police arrested Ewing. He and Searcy were each charged with the first-degree murder of Watson and three counts of assault with intent to commit murder involving Thomas, Reed, and Williams. Both were also charged with felony firearm.

In October 2010, Ewing and Searcy went to trial in Wayne County Circuit Court. The prosecution contended that the shooting was the result of a dispute between the Knock Out Boys and the Hustle Boys. Defense attorneys claimed the shooting was because of a dispute over a woman.

Thomas, Reed, and Williams testified about the circumstances of the shooting. None of them were able to identify the gunman or the driver of the turquoise vehicle.

Raymond Love identified Ewing as the gunman and Searcy as the driver of the turquoise car. He said he recognized Searcy because he had cursed at him for causing him to swerve when Searcy pulled out into Harper Avenue. He said he watched the shooting through the rearview mirror of his car. His wife, Jendayi, also identified Ewing as the gunman. She said that she also had seen the shooting by looking at the rearview mirror. She was unable to identify Searcy.

A police fingerprint analyst testified that he had examined the 12 shell casings but could not find any fingerprints.

Robert Charlton, a firearms examiner in Oakland County Sheriff’s Department, testified that he examined the nine shell casings recovered from the scene of the shooting. “All contained sufficient agreement of individual characteristics to have me determine that they were all fired from the same weapon,” Charlton said. He said he also examined the three shell casings found in the car when Searcy was arrested. He told the jury: “Those three casings were also fired from–again, a sufficient agreement of the characteristics they were fired from the same weapon and they were also fired from the same weapon as the other nine. One weapon fired all 12.”

The prosecution presented testimony from witnesses who described how a search warrant was obtained to track down information on the telephone number that was listed as belonging to “Apple” in the phone that Mark Davis, the passenger in Searcy’s car, was carrying when Searcy was arrested. The number was registered to Ewing’s sister, Cieddah Ewing.

FBI agent Christopher Hess, who was assigned to the FBI’s cellular analysis survey team, testified that he had reviewed the records of calls made from Cieddah Ewing’s cell phone on the day of the shooting. Hess testified that the records showed that at 4:01 p.m., just about the time of the shooting, the phone was located near Van Dyke Avenue.

The defense contended that Darrell Ewing spent the afternoon of the shooting at a reception held after the funeral of a family friend. His mother and two of his aunts testified that he was at the reception until it ended at about 5 p.m. They also testified that during the reception, Ewing's sister, who was the registered owner of the phone that the FBI had analyzed, left to go to a store and then returned.

However, the cornerstone of the defense was the testimony of Christopher Richardson that Tyree Washington had admitted on three different occasions that Washington had been the gunman.

Richardson and Washington had been arrested in March 2010, three months after the shooting. They were charged by federal authorities with several carjackings in the Detroit area. During questioning by FBI agents, Richardson said that prior to their arrest, Washington had admitted that he was the person who shot up the van. After that interview, federal prosecutors had notified Kam Towns, the assistant prosecuting attorney in charge of the Ewing-Searcy case.

Towns and an investigator had interviewed Richardson, and then informed the defense attorneys for Ewing and Searcy.

Richardson testified that Washington told him he “laid Isaiah down,” referring to Watson. Richardson claimed that according to Washington, he was in a car with two others, and the car pulled in front of the van to block it in.

“He told me they followed them and he shot the van up,” Richardson said. Richardson also said that Washington recounted how he walked up to the van and tapped on a side window before he opened fire.

The prosecution contended Richardson was lying to attempt to gain some leniency from federal authorities in the carjacking case. Towns noted that no vehicle had cut in front of the van, that none of the surviving occupants of the van said anyone had tapped on the window before the shooting, and that no one ever knew Watson to be called “Isaiah.”

The jury began deliberating on November 11, 2010. On November 15, the jury reported that it could not agree on a unanimous verdict, and asked whether the court would declare a mistrial. The trial judge declined and told the jury to continue to deliberate. On the following day, November 16, the jury convicted Ewing of first-degree murder, three counts of assault with intent to commit murder, and one count of felony firearm. The jury convicted Searcy of second-degree murder, three counts of assault with intent to commit murder, and one count of felony firearm.

At sentencing, both men asserted their innocence. “I been wrongly convicted of a crime I had nothing to do with,” Ewing declared. “Justice has failed me. The system has failed me and my family. Not only us, the victim’s family cause the wrong person has been convicted of a crime …they were seeking justice for.”

Searcy declared, “I just would like to say that I was wrongly convicted of a crime that I didn’t have anything to do with, and that my heart goes out to the victim[‘s] family.”

Ewing was sentenced to life in prison without parole. Searcy was sentenced to 40 to 60 years in prison.

On January 10, 2011, Kathleen Frances Byrnes, one of the jurors, filed an affidavit saying that during deliberations another juror brought in Facebook information regarding Ewing’s past history and information pertaining to an online eulogy for J.B. Watson. Byrnes also said that an additional juror had conducted online searches at home to find information pertaining to gang codes and gang activity that she found on the internet. The defense sought a new trial, noting that prior to Ewing’s and Searcy’s trial, the prosecution had sought to allow a police officer who was an expert on gang activity to testify about the Knock Out Boys and the Hustle Boys. The trial judge had barred that testimony.

According to Byrnes, one of the jurors had found information about gangs having a “pecking order.” Byrne said that according to the juror who did the online research, Ewing was at the top of the pecking order and Washington was at the bottom, and the gang had decided to sacrifice Washington by setting him up as the fall guy for the murder.

The motion for a new trial was denied without a hearing.

In 2013, the Michigan Court of Appeals upheld the convictions. The court held that the extraneous information brought into the jury deliberations was duplicative of information that had been presented at the trial, and that there was no evidence that the jury had discussed in any detail the extraneous information. The information was “harmless,” the court held.

In 2014, Ewing and Searcy sought further relief in the Michigan courts based on an affidavit from Washington that he had been the shooter, and that Ewing and Searcy were not involved. The petition also cited the jury misconduct. They were unsuccessful.

Ewing and Searcy then turned to the federal court, filing a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in 2015. In November 2017, Chief U.S. District Judge Denise Page Hood granted the petition and ordered their convictions vacated. Judge Hood noted that the day before the jury reached a verdict, it had sent out a note saying it was deadlocked and unable to reach a unanimous verdict. And after the trial judge told the jury to continue to deliberate, the extraneous information apparently was brought into the jury room. Judge Hood said she had “serious doubts that the jurors did not discuss the internet research that was brought into jury deliberations by the two jurors.” Moreover, Judge Hood said that “the Internet information may have tainted the jury…Lengthy deliberations by a jury preceding the jury misconduct and a relatively quick verdict following the misconduct strongly suggests prejudice.”

The prosecution appealed.

In February 2019, the Sixth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that instead of ordering a new trial, Judge Hood should have ordered that a hearing be held on a motion for a new trial based on the Byrnes affidavit. By that time, the prosecution had conceded that Ewing and Searcy should have been allowed to have a hearing to take testimony from jurors to determine the influence of the extraneous information.

The appeals court remanded the case with instructions that the convictions should be vacated unless the prosecution took steps to hold a hearing on the tainted jury taint issue. The appeals court did note that such a hearing would likely be problematic. “We are mindful that the passing of time since [Ewing’s and Searcy’s] conviction…may make it difficult to conduct a suitable…hearing at this stage. Jurors move and memories fade.”

Subsequently, the hearing was held. Byrnes testified that one juror looked up Facebook photographs of Ewing, including one that said “Mr. and Mrs. Nasty” and others which contained firearms. Byrnes testified the pictures were not brought into the jury room but were discussed during deliberations. Byrnes also testified that a juror also mentioned that he or she read Watson’s eulogy on the Internet. Byrnes discussed “experiments” that the jurors conducted regarding Raymond Love’s eyewitness testimony.

Byrnes testified that she was the holdout juror who caused the jury foreman to report the deadlock. She said she was particularly troubled by the testimony that Washington had confessed to the crime. Byrne said that another jury had researched information about gangs and gang hierarchies on the Internet and reported her findings to the jury. Byrnes said the juror explained that Ewing was at the top of the Hustle Boys while Washington was at the bottom, so therefore, he was willing to take responsibility to protect Ewing.

Byrne said this information was persuasive and she changed her mind to vote to convict Ewing. She said that once the jurors had concluded Ewing was guilty, the deliberations about Searcy did not take long because “Everyone felt that they were being tried together so if we were finding one guilty, we had to find the other one guilty.”

In October 2019, Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Michael Hathaway ruled that Ewing and Searcy were entitled to a new trial. Judge Hathaway said, “There doesn’t seem to be much question that extraneous information came into the deliberati[ve] process.”

Judge Hathaway found Byrnes’s testimony “pretty clear and convincing and amazingly vivid.” He concluded that the information about “gang culture, gang hierarchy, [and] gang nomenclature or signing” had the most impact on Byrnes’s decision to change her verdicts. Judge Hathaway also noted additional information was brought into the process that, cumulatively, also contributed to Byrnes’s decision to change her votes.

Judge Hathaway ruled that the extraneous information was brought into deliberations for the specific purpose of pressuring Byrnes to change her verdicts. “It is just inescapable from Byrnes’s testimony that the outside influences, the inappropriate influences caused her to change her mind. There is just no way to get around that based on her testimony. And that the information, particularly about gang culture, gang hierarchy, gang signs…were highly prejudicial.”

The prosecution appealed and in October 2020, the Michigan Court of Appeals affirmed the granting of a new trial.

On March 25, 2024, as the case was moving toward a retrial, the prosecution dismissed the charges. Ewing and Searcy were released more than 13 years after they were convicted.

– Natalie Castellon, Valerie Chaidez, Juan Govea, Nikki Nasseri, Sophia Yusef, & Dulce Pérez Zavala, assisted by Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 6/18/2024
Last Updated: 6/18/2024
State:Michigan
County:Wayne
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Attempted Murder, Illegal Use of a Weapon
Reported Crime Date:2009
Convicted:2010
Exonerated:2024
Sentence:40 to 60 years
Race/Ethnicity:Black
Sex:Male
Age at the date of reported crime:27
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, False or Misleading Forensic Evidence
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No