Detroit man exonerated in slayings after 26 years in prison
Detroit – Bernard Howard smiled as his decades-long pursuit of freedom officially ended with a victory in a virtual court on Thursday.
Howard, who spent 26 years in prison in 1994 for a triple homicide he did not commit, was exonerated during a livestream hearing in which Wayne Circuit judge Miriam Bazzi officially dismissed his case with prejudice, meaning that he cannot be charged with the crime again.
The 44-year-old native of Detroit is the 25th unjustly convicted inmate to have been exonerated by the Wayne County Conviction Integrity Unit since starting work in January 2018. That year, the unit secured relief for Howard and at least two other defendants whose convictions were based on “prison snitch” testimony.
Howard, who was 18 when he was convicted, was released from the Thumb Correctional Facility last month. With the charges formally closed on Thursday, he can now get on with his life – and work towards compensation for the years he has lost.
Under state law, Howard is entitled to $ 50,000 for every year he’s in jail, and his attorney Wolfgang Mueller says Bazzi’s decision clears the way to file a lawsuit for violation of federal civil rights, the next week is expected.
For the immediate future, however, Howard said he just wanted to relax.
“For now, I’m just going to relax with my grandchildren,” Howard said during a telephone interview minutes after Thursday’s trial.
Assistant Attorney Valerie Newman, director of the bureau’s integrity department, said during the hearing that detectives in the Detroit murder forced Howard to confess to the murders of Marcus Averitte, ReShay Winston and John Thornton.
“There was no evidence against him,” said Newman. “Nothing in this case indicates that anything Mr. Howard said to the police (during the confession) was correct.”
Howard’s Appellate Attorney Beth Morrow said, “Today is a great day for truth and justice. The truth is, he was always innocent … today his innocence is now being recognized by a court. We cannot calculate the loss for him.” During the 26 years he was imprisoned. He went in at the age of 18 and we cannot attach any value to that. “
On July 16, 1994, Averitte, Winston and Thornton were fatally shot several times. Police say they were also stripped of cash and marijuana.
Detroit police arrested Kenneth McMullen and Ledon Salisbury in connection with the killings. The two were taken to a cell in the former Detroit Police Department around 1300 Beaubien, where they met inmate Joe Twilley, according to Howard’s lawyers.
Twilley claimed McMullen and Salisbury told him Howard helped them commit the murders. Howard was arrested and taken to a cell on the 9th floor with Twilley, who later testified that Howard had told him he helped commission the three murders.
It wasn’t the first or last time Twilley would claim a fellow inmate had confessed to a crime. There are several appeals from prisoners claiming they were also wrongly convicted based on false testimony from Twilley, who escaped parole after being convicted of cocaine possession in 2005, according to the Michigan Department of Justice.
In February, Ramon Ward was exonerated after serving 25 years on Jan. 21, 1994 killing Denise Cornell and Joan Gilliam in an abandoned drug house in Detroit. During Ward’s preliminary investigation, Murder Sgt. Dale Collins testified that Twilley, whose testimony helped convict Ward, had also helped him “in at least 20 murders,” adding, “He’s basically always on cooperated with everything we wanted from him. “
Mueller said Twilley was responsible for several unlawful convictions in the 1990s when the problems became so widespread at DPD. Former Mayor Dennis Archer requested an investigation from the U.S. Department of Justice that culminated in 13 years of federal police oversight.
“It was an unethical culture in the DPD, in which the goals justified the means,” said Müller. “They’d do those prison snitches a favor – meals from out of restaurants, and there is even talk of taking them to the 5th floor at 1300 Beaubien and letting them have sex with their friends.
“It is outrageous that one person, Joe Twilley, is responsible for the conviction of over 20 people,” said Müller. “It’s like this guy is Oprah Winfrey – everyone wants to open up to him and confess everything.”
Howard said he would appreciate a closer look at the testimony of prison snitches.
“You have to give these snitches polygraph tests before they put them on the stand,” he said. “These guys will do anything to get a deal.”
Howard said it was difficult to serve time for a crime he didn’t commit, but knowing his own innocence kept him afloat.
“You have to hang your hat on the fact that you didn’t, no matter how hard it gets, because that’s the only thing you have in there,” he said. “You can’t give that up, no matter what.”
Morrow, who represented Howard on his call, said her client would still be in jail without the Conviction Integrity Unit.
“Without her work on this case, there would have been no justice today,” she said. Morrow also thanked Colorado-based innocent attorney Claudia Whitman, director of the National Capital Crime Assistance Network, who helped with Howard’s case.
“She supported Bernard emotionally and financially,” said Morrow. “This is the seventh case of her to result in her release. Six of them are in Michigan.”
During Thursday’s hearing, Bazzi told Howard that she couldn’t imagine his pain.
“You haven’t experienced what it is like to be a young adult in your twenties and thirties and learn what the world has to offer,” she said. “You have lost the opportunity to make connections, make a career, build a family. I can’t understand the huge impact this had on you and your loved ones; the anger and sorrow you must have felt.
“But I can say that a great injustice will be corrected today,” said the judge. “It’s not enough for what you deserve, but it’s a great start for you and your family.”
Bazzi also praised the Wayne County Attorney’s Office.
“Seldom do we see good prosecutors willing to come forward and correct mistakes,” she said. Attorney Kym Worthy, Assistant Attorney Newman: You helped save a life today.
Bazzi then said to the defendant, “Mr. Howard, you understand more than anyone how precious your time is. I hope you find peace. I hope you find comfort and I hope you find comfort in the fact that the killer’s label is gone. ” and replaced by “relieved”. I only wish you the best. “