On November 12, 1929, a car carrying several men pulled into a gas station in Romulus, Michigan, a southwest suburb of Detroit. While they waited to have the gas tank filled, another car pulled in, driven by James B. Smith, a candy salesman. When Smith stepped out of his car, the group of men ordered Smith to put his hands in the air. One of the men then shot and killed Smith with a pistol. The men pulled Smith into their car and then dropped his body in a nearby ditch.
After months without any progress in solving Smith’s murder, police received a report that inmates at the Ionia Reformatory had overheard their fellow inmate, 19-year-old Gerald Growden, “bragging” about murdering Smith. By the time police heard these reports, Growden had been released from the reformatory on parole. Police questioned him, and he could not provide an account for his whereabouts on November 12, 1929. In August 1931, police charged Growden with Smith’s murder. Growden said he was innocent.
Growden’s jury trial began on October 16, 1931 in Wayne County Circuit Court before Judge Guy A. Miller. Brothers Derwood and Willard Bower had witnessed Smith’s murder, and both identified Growden in court. Donald Shick and Paul Keehl, who were inmates with Growden at Ionia Reformatory, testified that Growden had boasted of being involved in Smith’s killing. The jury found Growden guilty on October 20, 1931, and Judge Miller sentenced him to life in prison.
In May 1931, police in the nearby Detroit suburb of Wyandotte arrested Harry Lancaster in a grocery store holdup, and Lancaster confessed to killing Smith. Lancaster implicated Peter Simon and Lawrence Hein, both of whom also confessed, claiming Lancaster had shot Smith when he believed Smith was reaching for a gun. The three men stated that they did not know Growden, and that he had not been involved in the crime. The fourth and fifth men involved in Smith’s murder were identified as William Burhoe and Joseph Urschel. The five men were all convicted on charges relating to Smith’s killing.
On June 17, 1932, Growden appeared before Judge Miller, who granted a motion by assistant prosecutor William C. Buckingham to vacate Growden’s conviction. Buckingham then moved to have the charge against Growden dismissed. This motion was also granted, and Growden was freed. Judge Miller warned Growden that his prior criminal record had contributed to his false conviction for Smith’s murder and encouraged him to stay out of trouble going forward.
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.