On the evening of September 15, l 944, a 63-year-old white woman named Victoria Len and her 26-year-old daughter, Estelle Nanys, were stopped on a Detroit street by two black men. One of the men pulled a gun and demanded money, but Nanys refused. Len grew hysterical and began shouting. The exact nature of the events thereafter are cloudy, but at some point the gunman shot Len once through the chest, killing her instantly. The two men fled from the scene and had disappeared by the time police arrived.
Early in the investigation, officers interviewed James Thomas, a 15-year-old black teenager who was facing time in reformatory school. They presented him with a green, wrap-around jacket bearing his name and asked him to whom he had lent it. When Thomas answered that he had given it to Roosevelt Williams, the policemen mentioned the Len homicide and promised Thomas leniency on upcoming charges if he helped turn up the killers. It is unclear how this jacket – which seems to have been the only evidence initially leading to the two men eventually charged – became linked to the crime, since the police notes from the initial interview of Nanys indicate that the assailants were both wearing tan coats. During a subsequent visit, police prodded Thomas into narrating a detailed story in which he witnessed Roosevelt Williams and Willie Calloway discussing the crime while in possession of a firearm. Williams was brought in to the police station and, according to later accounts given by him and a parole officer, tortured into confessing to the crime. Throughout the interrogation, cops prompted him to implicate Willie Calloway, a friend, as his accomplice.
Calloway was then taken to the station to stand in a line-up. As Nanys later admitted, policemen showed her a photograph of Williams right before the line-up was assembled and informed her that he was the murderer. Nanys accordingly identified Williams as the armed assailant, and both he and Willie Calloway were taken into police custody on suspicion of murder.
Williams and Calloway sat in prison awaiting their trial for more than a year. During that time, Williams made efforts to recant his earlier statements to the police, explaining that they were made under extreme duress. His retraction was duly recorded, but the original assertions remained the centerpiece of the state’s case.
As the trial finally neared, the court-appointed lawyers for Williams and Calloway recommended to their clients that they waive their right to a jury trial and plead their case before a judge. At the pre-trial hearing, Nanys identified Williams as the gunman in court but said she was unable to remember Calloway’s face, despite aggressive encouragement from the prosecutor. Nevertheless, the prosecutor accused both men of the homicide and a trial date was set. At trial, the prosecution questioned Nanys, who now claimed that Calloway had indeed participated in the robbery. Thomas was also placed on the stand and reiterated his observations of the two defendants on the night of the crime. Lastly, Williams’s confession was read aloud to the judge, despite the protestations of Williams. The defense noted that the statement was not legally binding on Calloway, as it was not given in his presence, and the judge responded that he would therefore disregard references made to Calloway and consider them irrelevant to the case against him. There is no information as to what argument, if any, the defense attorneys made on behalf of the defendants. What is known is that the proceedings lasted less than a day, at the end of which the judge found Calloway and Williams guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced them to life in prison in late 1945.
In 1953, Ken McCormick, a reporter for the Detroit Free Press, was contacted by prison warden William H. Bannan, who was convinced that Calloway was innocent. The warden showed McCormick documentation in which Thomas, who had also passed through his jail, admitted the falsity of his testimony against Williams and Calloway and described the questionable police tactics that had produced it. McCormick, a seasoned crime reporter who had recently earned a Pulitzer Prize for spearheading an expose of corruption in Detroit politics, reluctantly began to sift through the history of the case. After interviewing Calloway and discussing his situation with another warden certain of his wrongful conviction, McCormick began to discover a number of peculiarities in the investigation and trial that aroused his suspicions. Not only had Nanys been persuaded by a blatantly suggestive identification procedure, McCormick realized, and not only had she failed to pick out Calloway as an accomplice, she had also departed drastically from the physical description of the robbers she had given in the direct aftermath of the incident. Moreover, when McCormick visited Nanys, he found her unusually confused about the specifies of the investigation and was startled when she said that she had not been present at any pre-trial examination, contrary to all the available records.
Further digging revealed that a gun with the same caliber that produced the murder wound had been reported stolen in St. Louis the day before the murder, that it had subsequently been transported to Detroit, and that the man who took it had spoken to police about a failed burglary/shooting with details uncannily similar to the Len murder. Positive at the very least that Calloway had not been given a fair shake by the authorities, McCormick began to print a series of articles on the case, listing the systematic misconduct and apathy that had landed Calloway in prison, and petitioning the people of Michigan to demand a retrial in the interest of justice. In the popular furor created by McCormick’s well-advertised front-page pieces, several more pieces of exculpating evidence emerged. Most importantly, McCormick was able to locate a mysterious tipster who claimed to have been present at the murder and to know the identity of the real killer: the man who had stolen the gun in St. Louis. In addition, the owner of a barbecue restaurant where Calloway had been working at the time came to McCormick, along with the restaurant’s manager, to attest to Calloway’s whereabouts at the time of the murder, providing an alibi that had evidently been missing from the trial.
In response to the growing cry for Calloway’s exoneration, spurred by McCormick’s writing, several prominent local criminal defense attorneys offered their pro bono services to redress the wrong done to Calloway. McCormick worked closely with this legal team, hunting down yet more witnesses and obtaining sworn affidavits to use in the motion for a retrial.
Only a few months after McCormick’s pieces had started their run in the paper, a hearing for a re-trial was held. In the face of a hefty brief outlining Calloway’s many grievances against the state, the prosecution grudgingly moved to drop all charges. The presiding judge, also a close acquaintance of McCormick’s, approved, and Calloway was released that day, after more than nine years of incarceration.
Roosevelt Williams, however, who was also exonerated in theory by the newfound evidence turned up by McCormick, did not appeal his conviction. Williams remained in prison until he was paroled in 1965 when Governor George W. Romney commuted his life sentence.
- Jonah Horowitz
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.