A number of readers contacted me about a recent article in the Detroit Free Press about yet another case from Oakland County where a man was sentenced to life in prison for arson/murder that may well have been an accidental fire. It is outrageous, and it is the case of Anthony Kyles, which “has striking similarities to another high-profile Oakland County conviction that has been overturned,” that of Juwan Deering. Deering spent 15 years in prison for a 2000 fire in Royal Oak Township that killed five children before he was released in 2021. Kyles has been in prison for 24 years.
Both Kyles’ and Deering’s cases (1997 and 2006) were prosecuted Oakland County assistant prosecutor Greg Townsend. In Deering’s case favorable evidence, including statements by a fire survivor, was not shared with his defense lawyer before trial, and jurors didn’t know that jail informants were given significant benefits for their testimony against Deering. https://www.npr.org/2021/09/30/1041970362/juwan-deering-michigan-freed-wrongful-conviction-fire-children-deaths. Similarly, in Kyles’ case exculpatory evidence was withheld from the defense and the jury was misled about benefits given to a jailhouse snitch who testified against Kyles. He has since said he perjured himself at the trial. In both cases, an outside fire investigator concluded the fires could not be deemed arson.
Both wrongful conviction cases are/were handled by attorneys for the Michigan Innocence Clinic at the University of Michigan. When an innocence project comes calling, you better pay attention because these attorneys have done some incredibly solid, uphill work over the years trying to right wrongs that have happened in our courts. If you have not read Just Mercy, A Story of Justice and Redemption, by Bryan Stevenson (2014), I commend the book to you. Especially if you think everyone who raises his or her right hand in court tells the truth, or that prosecutors are on a mission from God who do no wrong, or that judges always get it right and play fair.
As I read and reread the article about Kyle’s case, I was struck by the fact that while AP Townsend’s actions were set forth, the gravity of them was not discussed. It is commendable an Oakland County judge granted current OCP Karen McDonald’s request to close Deering’s after Deering’s convictions and life sentences were thrown out at her urging. It is also commendable and unprecedented for Oakland County that Prosecutor McDonald has established a Conviction Integrity Unit in the wake of the disturbing revelations established by the Innocence Clinic in these two cases.
While the focus of inquiry must be on the innocence of the accused in wrongful conviction cases, there is another story that must not be overlooked; the prosecutorial misconduct that facilitated the wrongful conviction. Prosecutor McDonald inherited a literal 50-year legacy of questionable prosecutors in Oakland County. If detectives, prosecutors and judges (some of them not even named in this article!) won’t speak on the record, get a prominent defense attorney to explain the gravity of AP Townsend’s actions in these two cases. Get a law professor to discuss the heightened and unique ethical responsibility of a prosecutor. If no attorney from Michigan will speak on the record, find an expert from some other part of the country. The press should educate readers about what happens when you elect a hack to serve in any law enforcement capacity.
This story isn’t finished. I call it The Guilt Project. The guilt of prosecutors who abuse their power. If they do it in one area, they do it in many others, you can bet on it. That the current OCP is cleaning things up is borderline miraculous, given the history of the office. It is incumbent on the press to shine a light on past practices as well as current cases. Going easy on elected officials (past or present) and their underlings undermines the role of the press.
This article was heartbreaking and maddening. Let’s hope the rot of corruption can be excised beginning with these two cases.