In March 2007, four men, masked and armed, robbed the Mr. Bubble Auto Spa in Ypsilanti Township. Car wash owner Mark Elker couldn’t identify any of them on the grainy surveillance tape. But when the footage ran on TV, Ronald Johnson contacted the Washtenaw County Sheriff’s Department.
“That’s my son, Ronnell, just clear as day,” Ronald later told the court. “I mean it’s—this is clear as day.” Ronnell Johnson’s aunt, Cynthia Fort, confirmed her brother’s testimony. “[That’s] a tape of my nephew.”
The cops arrested Ronnell. His lawyer, Kingsley Arimah, wanted to know more about the witnesses, but the court denied his request, noting that “the prosecutor has an obligation to turn over information regarding a witness’s criminal background that would be beneficial to the defendant.” The Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment requires that favorable evidence of any kind must be shared with the defense. Apparently, there wasn’t any.
Still, the defense tried to undermine Ronald Johnson’s credibility. Ronnell seemed taller than the guy in the video. But a father would know his own son, right? The prosecution assured the court that Ronald “was not a person who came to court with any agenda.”
There was no physical evidence, and Ronnell insisted he was innocent. But in March 2008, relying on his father’s testimony, and bolstered by his aunt’s, the court convicted him of two counts of armed robbery, felon in possession of a firearm (he’d served time for drug possession and resisting arrest), and felony firearms. The sentence? Up to twenty-five years in prison.
In 2015, Ronnell obtained a report from Phil Locke, science and technology advisor for the Ohio Innocence Project and the Duke University Law School Wrongful Convictions Clinic. Locke used photogrammetric analysis to determine that Ronnell was significantly taller than the person in the surveillance tape.
Meanwhile, Fort had second thoughts. She would later testify that the suspect in the video was shorter, thicker, and had darker skin and a distinctly different hairline than her nephew. Her brother had urged her to see the image his way, she said, telling her Ronnell would be safer in jail, off the streets.
In 2016, Ronnell contacted the Michigan Innocence Clinic (MIC) at the U-M School of Law, which has won the release of twenty-six wrongfully convicted people since it opened in 2009.
It was the right place to go.
The clinic’s codirectors, David Moran and Imran Syed, are both U-M law professors. With clinical fellow Megan Richardson, they supervise law students who review police reports, track down witnesses, research and write briefs, argue court motions, and conduct evidentiary hearings.
“By the time they report back to us, the work is largely done,” says Syed, who began working at the MIC when he was a law student and later served as a clinical fellow there. In 2017, the American Bar Association named him one of the Top 40 Young Lawyers in the country. (Moran, who has argued six cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, held that honor in 2010.)
When Ronnell’s case came to MIC, two students studied the files and reported their independent findings. “We get about 6,000 applications [a year],” Syed explains, and reject 90 percent of them. Then they delve into the remaining 10 percent, to see if there is enough new evidence to bring the case to court. And, in 90 percent of those cases, there isn’t.
Although the team agreed Ronnell was probably innocent, MIC turned down the case. A new interpretation of old evidence is not enough to get a new trial. And they didn’t have new evidence.
It took the Washtenaw County’s prosecutor’s office to find the missing piece.
In January 2021, Ronnell filed a motion for relief from judgment, and the judge ordered the prosecutor’s office to respond to it. A new prosecutor, Eli Savit, had just been elected on a criminal justice reform platform.
Savit’s newly created Conviction Integrity and Expungement Unit looked into the case. And what they found was eye-opening.
In 2007, Ronald Johnson was charged with two counts of felonious assault after threatening to shoot two people with a pellet gun; one of them was a Washtenaw County sheriff’s detective in plain clothes. He faced up to six years in prison. Less than one month after he implicated Ronnell, his felony charges disappeared. He pleaded to a misdemeanor and was sentenced to eighteen months of probation.
The prosecution at the time hadn’t told Ronnell’s defense attorney about the plea deal. That meant the defense couldn’t cross examine Ronald and show his incentive for lying. Since that might have changed the trial outcome, a case could be made. Fort’s recantation, and the photogrammetry evidence that Ronnell is taller than the man in the video, made it a strong one.
“They knew that the Innocence Clinic had worked on Ronnell’s case, so they called me and told me about the failure to disclose, making clear that they wanted Ronnell to have counsel,” says Syed. This was new evidence! MIC accepted Ronnell Johnson as a client.
The MIC asked the court to allow it to file a new supplement to the motion for relief that would include the failure to disclose. It was granted, and in mid-April, Savit’s office responded.
“They concede that Mr. Johnson’s constitutional rights were violated at his trial,” Syed emails, “and they concur in our request that he be granted a new trial.”
“It’s refreshing to have people who speak to us,” says Syed, noting that Frances Walters, the attorney with Savit’s new unit who brought the case to him, worked in MIC when she was a student at U-M Law. “If we had gotten this case when the former administration was in, we wouldn’t have taken it.”
As unjust and sad as Johnson’s story is, some of the clinic’s cases involve longer—much longer—delays between conviction and exoneration. Walter Forbes was incarcerated for nearly thirty-eight years for a crime he did not commit.
Forbes was twenty-five and a student at Jackson Community College in 1982, when a fire destroyed a Jackson rental property. It was supposed to be unoccupied, but a man named Dennis Hall was inside, and died in the fire.
The police were struggling to solve the case when a young mother, Annice Gibson (now Kennebrew), came forward. She said she was on the way home from a bar at 2 a.m. when she saw three men come out of the bushes; two were carrying red gasoline canisters. Then Forbes appeared and told the others he was going in to ignite the fire.
Her testimony contradicted some facts from the investigation; the canister was blue and there was just one, for instance. But why would she lie?
The police arrested the three men. One was released after he passed a polygraph; another was acquitted at trial.
At Forbes’ trial, the defense raised questions about the property owner, David Jones, after rumors circulated that he had paid a former tenant $1,000 to burn the property down. At trial, Jones testified he received $50,200 in insurance money, more than the $35,000 market value of the empty house, but he said he maintained the property only for a tax deduction.
The prosecution argued that there was no evidence against Jones. On the other hand, there was animosity between Forbes and the victim. Forbes had tried to stop a fight in the not-too-distant past, and Hall had shot him. After Forbes was released from the hospital, he testified against Hall. After that, Forbes said, he had put the incident behind him.
A jury convicted Forbes of arson and first-degree felony murder. He was sentenced to life without parole. The convictions were affirmed on direct appeal.
In 1988, police from Green Oak Township in Livingston County contacted Forbes, who was researching his case while in prison. They told him that David Jones, the landlord, was a suspect in another fire in Green Oak with similarities to the fire in Jackson.
Forbes brought the case to MIC, which began to review it in 2010. He made the first 10 percent cut, and then the second 10 percent cut. They accepted him as a client in 2016.
Clinic students set to work along two lines. “They gathered information about the other case. We were successful in getting full police records and court records,” says Syed. “They also tried to interview the woman.”
Law students phoned Kennebrew several times in 2012 and 2013. She confirmed her testimony but made comments that raised questions. For instance, she asked, “How is Walter?” (Why would she care?) “She was going through a process,” Syed recalls. “It took many calls to build up a relationship.”
Kennebrew was afraid. The statute of limitations for perjury passed, but it wasn’t possible prosecution that terrified her. Finally, in April 2016, she agreed to meet with a trusted student and Syed. “She admitted she had fabricated the story because a couple of guys in the neighborhood had said they would come after her … She finally signed an affidavit recanting her testimony,” says Syed.
In 2020, Kennebrew told the court she hadn’t even been at the scene of the fire, and only learned of it the next day. She said her previous testimony was “all just a lie … Walter didn’t do anything.”
She said that two local men wanted Forbes “out of the way” for reasons she didn’t know, and had threatened to harm her and her family if she did not go to the police with a story they concocted. Kennebrew testified that she had been afraid to come forward, but felt great guilt over her testimony, “I’m old enough now to know better … It’s time for the truth to come out.”
The Livingston County court records also were revelatory, providing significant evidence that the 1988 Livingston fire was part of an arson/insurance fraud scheme piloted by Jones: he reviewed the Livingston County court files and found that Jones was a loan shark who’d loaned money to drug addicts, and he had demanded that one of them set the second fire in order to repay an outstanding loan. Details about the first fire came out, too—for instance that the insurance on the house was only sixty days old, even though Jones had owned the house for more than eight years.
Jones was convicted of the 1990 fire, which provided new evidentiary proof for what the defense had argued in 1982: he conspired to set the Jackson fire for monetary gain. It indicated a common motive.
Add the recantation of the prosecution’s only witness, and there was a reasonable probability of a different outcome if a new trial were held. But the Jackson County prosecutor refused MIC’s request.
So MIC went to court. A year and a half later, Jackson County circuit judge Thomas Wilson agreed to hold a hearing. He reviewed the new evidence and vacated the sentence in November 2020.
The prosecution dismissed all charges, and Forbes was fully exonerated in December 2020. The state paid him nearly two million dollars: $50,000 for each year he was imprisoned.
Why wasn’t the injustice apparent and the release arranged earlier? “When people attempt to reopen cases, judges tend to be dismissive,” says Syed, who is grateful to Wilson for hearing the case at all. “Most judges wouldn’t have given us a chance.”
With all the delays and frustrations, what attracts Syed to this work? “It’s an opportunity to make a difference to people our system has ignored for years,” he says. “There are not a whole lot of avenues to overcome a wrongful conviction.
“I’m so pleased that so many of our students have become public defenders or prosecutors with a conscience. We can’t help that many of the thousands who are wrongfully convicted, but we can educate and inspire our students and the community.”