On August 9, 1974, George Gordon was shot to death during the armed robbery of his Detroit jewelry store.
In early January 1975, Detroit police arrested 21-year-old Lawrence Patton for possession of stolen property. Believing Patton and his fellow gang members may have been involved in twelve recent homicides on Detroit’s west side, Detroit police questioned him about these crimes, including the murder of George Gordon. According to Patton, police told him that he would spend the rest of his life in prison unless he cooperated. Initially, Patton denied his involvement in several of the crimes, including the robbery and murder of Gordon, but when police presented incriminating evidence against him, Patton agreed to provide information on his accomplices and testify at their trials in exchange for transactional immunity in the robbery and murder of Gordon. Patton would testify against his fellow gang members in at least nine other murder trials in exchange for pleading guilty to a reduced charge of second-degree murder in one of the slayings.
Police supplied Patton with a list of several of their suspects in the Gordon murder and told him to identify his accomplices. Included on the list was 22-year-old Donald Sullivan, Jr., who worked at the jewelry store. Patton identified Sullivan and two other men as his accomplices. Police arrested Sullivan on January 10, 1975 and charged him with murder.
In March 1975, Sullivan and the two men Patton alleged were his accomplices were tried by a jury before Judge James del Rio in the City of Detroit Recorder’s Court. Patton’s testimony served as the primary evidence against Sullivan. On March 6, 1975, Sullivan and his codefendants were convicted of first-degree felony murder. Sullivan was sentenced to life in prison on March 11, 1975. The Michigan Court of Appeals affirmed his conviction on August 10, 1977.
In 1981, Patton recanted his testimony against Sullivan, signing two affidavits repudiating his trial testimony and stating that Sullivan was not involved in the crime. Sullivan then filed a motion in Wayne County Circuit Court for a new trial based on newly discovered evidence.
Judge Donald J. Hobson held an evidentiary hearing on December 4, 1981 and informed Patton of the gravity of perjury. Patton then affirmed his recantation. Patton explained that he had only lied because he had been “scared to death” and police had threatened him with life in prison if he did not cooperate with them. In explaining his desire to recant, Patton said that his false testimony against Sullivan had “been kind of heavy on [his] mind” and that he “didn’t even think [Sullivan] would wind up where he wound up.”
The prosecutor then requested Patton be given a polygraph examination. An examiner with the Polygraph Unit of the Michigan State Police administered the test on January 12, 1982, and reported finding no deception in Patton’s statements about Sullivan’s lack of involvement in the crime.
After receiving the results of that polygraph examination, Hobson granted Sullivan’s motion for a new trial on February 10, 1982. The charges against Sullivan were dismissed on March 26, 1982, and he was released from prison.
Michigan’s “Wrongful Imprisonment Compensation Act” took effect in March 2017, and Sullivan filed a claim for compensation under the new law on September 25, 2017. However, the court found that there was not qualifying “new evidence” of wrongful imprisonment for Sullivan to collect under the law.
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.