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Sentenced to life in prison in 1931 for the murder of his wife in Detroit, Michigan, Lonnie Jenkins was exonerated in 1940 through the zealous efforts of his original defense attorney and his daughter.
Prior to his wife’s death, 28-year-old Lonnie Jenkins worked as a Detroit DSR streetcar conductor and lived with his wife, Edith Jenkins, and their 10-year-old daughter, Helen. Edith was a habitually ill woman who held a job as a stenographer while also looking after her daughter. The Jenkins’ decided to hire Betty Zimmerman, the fifteen-year-old daughter of their neighbors, to help care for Helen and take some of the burden off Edith. Betty had been having trouble in school and fighting with her parents, which resulted in her being taken to court and threatened with institutionalization. The Jenkins’ suggested that Betty live with them to get some space from her parents, and she could help with household chores as well. The Jenkins’ then moved to a new neighborhood, where neighbors would overhear them quarreling, which led the neighbors to speculate to one another that teenage Betty was the reason for the fighting.
After moving in with the Jenkins’, Betty began skipping school again. Edith eventually asked her to leave the Jenkins’ home and informed the court of her truancy. Betty was ordered to stay away from the Jenkins’ home and sentenced to spend thirteen months at the House of Good Shepard, but was ultimately placed on probation instead.
Several months later, in late September 1931, Edith Jenkins attempted suicide. The building superintendent found her unconscious in her kitchen with all the oven gas jets turned on and a suicide note on the table. When she regained consciousness, Edith asked the superintendent not to tell her husband about this attempt, but the superintendent did inform Lonnie when he returned home.
On October 15, 1931, Lonnie Jenkins reported that he was getting dressed in his bedroom when he heard a gunshot in his kitchen. He ran into the kitchen and found Edith lying on her back with a gunshot wound to the head and Lonnie’s pistol lying on her chest. She was still alive, and Lonnie ran to a neighboring doctor’s house and brought the doctor over. However, the doctor was not able to save her and she died on the way to the hospital. When police arrived, they found a suicide note on the living room table. Lonnie was cooperative with police. When they inquired about his relationship with Betty Zimmerman, Lonnie told them that Betty had developed a foolish infatuation with him, but that he had viewed her as more of a daughter or sister and had not been involved in a relationship with her. He mentioned that Betty had told him she had carved his initials on her thighs with a razor blade.
Mrs. Jenkins’ death was ruled a suicide by the coroner based on the previous suicide attempt, but the investigating detectives, Detective Sergeant Walter C. Swords and Detective Charles Snyder, were not convinced that her death was a suicide. The detectives were first suspicious of Lonnie Jenkins based on his claim that he had found his wife lying on her back, since the detectives had never seen a suicide by gunshot wound where the victim had fallen on her back. The detectives also remained suspicious about Lonnie’s relationship with Betty.
Police interviewed Betty Zimmerman, who was not forthcoming with information, but she stated that the handwriting in the suicide note did not resemble Mrs. Jenkins’ handwriting. She was later brought into the police station for further interrogations, at which time she eventually claimed that she had forged the suicide note. She claimed that Lonnie had asked her to practice his wife’s handwriting and had dictated the suicide note to her, claiming that he “might need them [the notes] someday.” Betty further stated that she had a passionate romance with Lonnie and that he had told her he would “get rid” of his wife so he could marry Betty.
Police then interviewed Lonnie again, during which time he repeatedly denied every aspect of Betty’s story and never changed his version of events. However, police believed Betty Zimmerman and charged Lonnie Jenkins with the murder of his wife.
During the trial, the following circumstantial evidence mounted against Lonnie Jenkins: 1) the prosecution insisted that it would have been impossible for Edith to fall on her back if she had shot herself; 2) Betty told of her daytime trysts with Jenkins, supported by documents reflecting Betty’s absences from school when Jenkins was known to be home from work; and 3) testimony that was used to imply the suicide note was not written by Edith.
Jenkins testified as to his innocence, and his defense attorney, Allen W. Kent, argued that Betty’s story was concocted out of revenge for Jenkins’ denial of her interest in him. The jury was not convinced and found Jenkins guilty of first-degree murder in December 1931. Judge Christopher E. Stein sentenced Jenkins to life in prison.
Allen Kent, convinced of his client’s innocence, continued to work on Jenkins’ case. He further investigated whether a suicide victim could fall backward. He purchased a revolver and positioned his feet in different ways to see how he might fall. In the spring of 1932, Kent went to the office of Henry W. Piel, the Chief of Detectives, to discuss the Jenkins case. Kent took out his revolver and proceeded to act out his theory of how Edith Jenkins’ body fell after she shot herself. Tragically, he overlooked the bullet in the firing chamber of his revolver and shot himself in the head while demonstrating his theory, accidentally killing himself.
With the significant loss of Kent, Jenkins appeared to be stuck in prison. However, one advocate for Jenkins’ freedom remained – his daughter, Helen. After her father’s conviction, 11-year-old Helen had gone to live with relatives in Wisconsin. She remembered when Betty was living with her family and that her father had been devoted to the ill Edith and had denied Betty’s advances. Helen could not believe her father would have killed her mother to be with Betty. Working as a waitress, Helen began saving money to continue the fight for her father’s freedom.
Helen followed the lead of Allen Kent and talked to ballistics experts who knew of several authentic cases where suicide victims fell on their backs after shooting themselves. In 1938, Helen visited Betty Zimmerman and asked her about the trial. Betty admitted that she was confused at the trial but that she was sure she had not written the suicide note. With this information in hand, Helen convinced the current prosecutor, Paul W. Voorhies, to reopen the investigation into the death of her mother. The re-investigation included the use of FBI handwriting expert E.M. Coffee. After reviewing the handwriting of Edith Jenkins and Betty Zimmerman and comparing them to the suicide note, Coffee determined that Edith Jenkins had indeed written the note and that the slight differences in her writing were caused by emotional strain.
Soon after the prosecutor initiated the new investigation, Harry Cohen, the attorney assisting Helen, filed a motion for a new trial, which was granted on 1940. At a pre-trial hearing in December 1940, Helen testified regarding her visit with Betty Zimmerman in 1938 and how Betty had admitted that she was sure she did not write the suicide note. She also testified as to her mother’s suicidal mindset leading up to her death and her frequent discussion of suicide. The prosecutor testified as to E.M. Coffee’s conclusion that Edith Jenkins was the writer of the suicide note. After the presentation of this evidence, Judge Christopher E. Stein stated: “There is nothing else for the court to do but free the prisoner.” The prosecutor then requested that the charges against Lonnie Jenkins be dropped.
Jenkins was freed in time to spend Christmas with Helen and his other relatives after nine years in prison. After Christmas, Jenkins returned to his job as a DSR motorman. The streetcars throughout the city hosted a “Lonnie Jenkins Day,” during which they raised a sizable amount of money for Jenkins to use for his new start in life.
– Researched by Joseph M. Peterson.
The National Registry of Exonerations is a project of the Newkirk Center for Science & Society at University of California Irvine, the University of Michigan Law School and Michigan State University College of Law. It was founded in 2012 in conjunction with the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law. The Registry provides detailed information about every known exoneration in the United States since 1989—cases in which a person was wrongly convicted of a crime and later cleared of all the charges based on new evidence of innocence. The Registry also maintains a more limited database of known exonerations prior to 1989.
We welcome new information from any source about exonerations already on our list and about cases not in the Registry that might be exonerations.