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Lee Dell Walker


Two men held up a grocery store in Detroit, Michigan, on February 17, 1954. The storeowner, John Drousiotis, was shot and killed during the robbery, and his wife and 16-year-old store clerk, Robert Hines, witnessed the shooting.
 
The following month, Edward Zasternak was mugged in Detroit while leaving a bank with $500 for his employer. He informed police that the getaway car had a “V” emblem on the trunk. A few blocks away, police found a parked car with a “V” emblem on the trunk, which was registered to 41-year-old Lee Dell Walker.
 
That evening, Lee Dell Walker called the police twice to report that his car had been stolen. The following day, March 27, 1954, police came to Walker’s house to arrest him in the assault on Zasternak. Finding a .32 caliber revolver under the hood of his car, Walker became a suspect in the Drousiotis murder as well.
 
On March 31, 1954, after nine days in police custody, Walker allegedly confessed to the murder of Drousiotis. Police believed Walker’s accomplice in the crime was Bill Johnson, who had been killed the same week that Walker was arrested. Walker’s trial began on June 21, 1954 before Judge John A. Ricca, with S. Theodore Kotelly as prosecutor. Walker had recanted his confession and claimed that he was in Inkster, Michigan, 17 miles from Detroit, at the time of the crime, but the jury found him guilty of first-degree murder on June 28, 1954. He was sentenced to life imprisonment. 
 
Nine years later, Walker appealed his conviction on the basis that his confession had not been voluntary. Walker claimed that after being detained for two days following his arrest, police began beating him, starving him, and mentally abusing him, and that he was told, “confess or we’ll blow your brains out.” He maintained that if he did in fact sign a confession, he later had no recollection of doing so. His motion for a retrial was denied, and the Michigan Supreme Court affirmed this denial in December 1963.
 
Walker filed another motion for a new trial following the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Jackson v. Denno, resulting in the Michigan Supreme Court ruling that a trial judge must determine whether or not a confession was given voluntarily. Walker’s case was remanded back to the trial court for such a determination. In April 1965, Judge John A. Ricca ruled that Walker’s confession had been voluntary, and Walker returned to Jackson Prison.
 
During his years in prison, Walker spent his time reading, studying and accumulating an impressive library. Walker, who had been abandoned as an infant on the steps of a Texas orphanage in 1913, spent his childhood being passed from one sharecropping family to another throughout the southern states. After educating himself in prison, he became one of the most famous jailhouse lawyers in the country, helping nearly 50 inmates go free.
 
In February 1972, the Detroit Free Press published an investigative piece by Howard Kohn covering the details of Walker’s case and his quest for a new trial. As part of the newspaper’s six-week investigation into Walker’s case, the reporters discovered new evidence supporting Walker’s claims of innocence. The Free Press spoke with three new witnesses who had never been interviewed by police and could confirm Walker’s alibi that he had been 17 miles from the crime scene at the time of the crime. The reporters learned that no witnesses had ever identified Walker as the shooter and that Walker did not fit the physical description of the shooter. They discovered that police were unable to explain a three-day delay between the time a gun was recovered from Walker’s car and the time when it was turned in to the crime lab, and two of the four detectives on Walker’s case were later accused of taking payoffs from organized criminals. There was evidence that – at least once after trial – the prosecutor’s office had altered key facts in Walker’s case. They also learned that an eyewitness had provided a statement that Walker’s confession was coerced. Additionally, it was learned that a clerical error had resulted in Walker’s criminal record listing a 1937 murder conviction in Oklahoma. Someone else with a similar name had actually committed this murder, but Walker’s lawyer had not permitted him to testify in his defense at trial because of this past conviction on his record. The Free Press investigation turned up other new information that raised questions about his guilt as well.
 
Following the publication of Kohn’s article, two additional new witnesses came forward to support Walker’s claims. One stated that he saw Walker five days after his alleged confession and Walker’s face had been swollen and bruised at that time. The second witness said he was a friend of Walker’s who had wanted to testify in his original trial as a character witness but was dismissed by Walker’s parole officer, who told him not to get involved in the case.
 
Another motion for a retrial was filed, this time with Recorder’s Court Judge Robert Evans. Judge Evans requested that Walker’s attorneys present all the new evidence to him at a hearing before he would make a decision on the motion. After reviewing the new evidence, Judge Evans granted Walker’s motion for a new trial on May 15, 1972.
 
On December 12, 1972, the prosecutor, William Cahalan, opted not to pursue a retrial, entering an order of nolle prosequi. Cahalan stated that he had decided not to re-try Walker because several important witnesses had died and much of the physical evidence had been destroyed. 
 
In December 1973, Senator Coleman Young introduced a bill to compensate Walker for “time spent in state prison due to a mistake in identify and false testimony” with a $25,000 payment. After the Michigan Senate passed the bill, it was under review by the House of Representatives when Prosecutor Cahalan sent a letter to the press and the House committee stating that no wrong had been done to Walker. Cahalan’s letter stated, “There was no false testimony. Lee Dell Walker was justly convicted of a crime that he committed… If Lee Dell Walker is to be rewarded with $25,000, give it to him for his persistence. Do not commit the final perversion of stating that a guilty man is innocent.” Walker then filed a libel lawsuit against Cahalan, but the suit was unsuccessful.
 
The bill granting Walker $25,000 ultimately passed in 1978, at which time Cahalan commented to the press, “We’re laying off assistant prosecutors in my office and giving convicted murderers $25,000.” At age 66, Lee Dell Walker died the following year of an apparent heart attack.
 
– Meghan Barrett Cousino
State:MI
County:Wayne
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Reported Crime Date:1954
Convicted:1954
Exonerated:1972
Sentence:Life
Race:Black
Sex:Male
Age at the date of crime:41
Contributing Factors:False Confession, Official Misconduct