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Sentenced to life in prison for the 1960 murder of Detroit drugstore owner David Lipton, Sceola Kuykendall (also referenced as Seceolo Kuykendall), along with codefendants Ephraim R. Clark and Lindberg Hall, was exonerated within a year of his conviction. Despite evidence of witness perjury and police misconduct, the three men’s exonerations came only after the real killer confessed and implicated others when confronted with ballistics evidence that had been unavailable at the time of trial.
Detroit drug store owner Lipton suffered multiple gunshot wounds during a robbery at his store on the night of October 4, 1960. He died in the hospital one week later. The Lipton robbery/murder was not a unique event during that fall of l960; Detroit was facing rising crime rates and armed robberies against storekeepers were increasingly common. As such, the police were under pressure to solve the Lipton murder as soon as possible.
In early December 1960, the police announced that Lipton’s murderers had been captured. Hall, Clark and Kuykendall were indicted and charged with first-degree murder based on allegations made by Edith Adams, the 24-year-old girlfriend of Hall. The men were each assigned counsel.
Edith Adams had just been arrested on unrelated robbery charges when she implicated the three men in Lipton’s murder. Adams told police that on the night of the murder, she had accompanied them in Clark’s car to the neighborhood of Lipton’s drugstore, where she remained in the car while they went into Lipton’s store. She claimed that she heard shots fired, saw the three men run out of the store, and that they sped away in Clark’s vehicle. She further indicated that she and Hall left Detroit that night, heading for Chicago in another man’s car. At a December 13, 1960 hearing, drug store clerk Sue Valentine also identified Hall, Clark and Kuykendall as the men who had robbed and shot Lipton.
From the outset, Harry Anbender, who had been assigned to represent Ephraim Clark, believed the three men were not involved in the crime and took painstaking steps to establish his client’s innocence. He arranged for Clark to be interrogated under hypnosis, and while hypnotized, Clark insisted that he had not taken part in the crime and was able to identify witnesses who could attest to his whereabouts when the Lipton robbery occurred. Anbender interviewed these witnesses and confirmed Clark’s story, and also established a timeline of events that illustrated how the three men could not possibly have been present at the scene of the robbery. For instance, he interviewed the man who had driven Adams and Hall to Chicago on the night of the murder, and learned that they had left Detroit at 9:00 p.m., half an hour before Lipton was robbed and shot. He checked repair records for Clark’s car—Adams had given details about how they had backed into a parking place near Lipton’s store—and verified Clark’s assertion that the reverse gear on his car was broken at the time of the murder, thus making it impossible to back up. He interviewed Hall and Kuykendall, who insisted they and Clark had nothing to do with the Lipton murder, while readily admitting to other crimes. All told, Anbender was convinced that the men were innocent and approached trial with an assortment of supportive evidence and testimony.
Trial commenced on January 10, 1961, before Judge Gerald Groat of the Recorder’s Court of the City of Detroit. Despite strenuous cross-examination, Adams repeated her earlier story, implicating the three men. The jury ignored the men’s alibi witnesses, and on the basis of Adams’ testimony, along with Sue Valentine’s identification, the men were found guilty as charged on January 31, 1961. They were sentenced to life in prison on February 14, 1961.
On February 21, 1961, attorney Anbender filed a Motion for New Trial on behalf of all three defendants, based on the disregard of evidence and other errors made during trial, and on Edith Adams’ surprising admission that she had lied on the witness stand. On February 10, 1961, Adams had written to Anbender stating that she wanted to clear her conscience before the men were sentenced. She admitted that she had perjured herself at trial and that the police had made a deal with her, promising that if she would implicate Hall, Clark and Kuykendall, the charges pending against her would be dropped. Anbender tape recorded Adams’ confession and played it for the prosecutor, who assured him it would be investigated. The investigation (apparently conducted by the same police officer who had coerced Adams into lying), concluded that Adams changed her story because she realized her boyfriend could be sentenced to life in prison, and that her trial testimony was indeed accurate. Anbender’s Motion for New Trial was denied.
It wasn’t until November 1961 that the discovery of new evidence led to the exoneration of Hall, Clark and Kuykendall. The discovery began when Gene Adams, 21, was arrested on a robbery charge and confessed to numerous robberies during the preceding year, including a gas station robbery which took place three days prior to the Lipton shooting. In the gas station robbery, an attendant was shot in the leg and ballistics evidence was gathered that matched the bullet used in that robbery to the bullets recovered from Lipton’s body. When confronted with this fact, Gene Adams admitted to his involvement in the Lipton robbery and identified his companions, Delphine Coleman, Kenneth Anderson, Ronald Gilliam and Joseph Kelley. Gene Adams named Kelley as the shooter, and this was confirmed by Coleman.
On November 14, 1961, prosecutor Max Silverman filed a Motion for New Trial based on Adams’s confession and the supportive ballistics evidence. He also told the media that even though he had prosecuted the three men, he had never been fully convinced of their guilt. On November 18, 1961, a hearing on the motion took place, at which time recordings of the confessions were played and the new trial was granted.
Two days later, prosecutor Silverman filed a Petition of Nolle Prosequi on behalf of Hall, Clark and Kuykendall, and Judge Groat granted the petition. On November 22, 1961, an Order of Nolle Prosequi was signed by the court and filed, and Judge Groat ordered the charges dismissed for each defendant. Clark was freed, while Hall and Kuykendall remained incarcerated on other, unrelated charges. No charges were ever brought against Edith Adams, nor was any action taken against the police officers who coerced her into giving false testimony. In the media, the prosecutor’s office endorsed the police misconduct by claiming that such witness agreements were sometimes necessary to keep criminals off the street. Clark subsequently sued the City of Detroit, the police department, and Edith Adams for malicious prosecution. The outcome is unknown.
- Catherine M. Orth
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.