GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (CN) - Small-town police used "lies, deception and threats" to send a man to prison for 17 years for a rape and murder they knew he did not commit, he now claims in court.
Jamie Lee Peterson, a then-22-year-old man with depression and cognitive disabilities, says local and state police officers fed him inside information about the 1996 crime as they coerced his "confession," changing their story when DNA evidence pointed away from him.
Peterson was on suicide watch in jail for an unrelated crime in 1997 when a fellow inmate told officers he had made incriminating statements about the rape and murder of Geraldine Montgomery, a 68-year-old Sunday school teacher whose murder had rocked the small town of Kalkaska, Mich., court records show.
One of the detectives named in the lawsuit, David Heymes, "knew Jamie, knew his disabilities, and had even been with Jamie on the evening of the murder," the complaint states, but nevertheless joined his colleague Greg Somers in questioning Peterson.
The detectives and polygraph tester Mark Uribe told Peterson he failed hours of repeated polygraph tests, the results of which were never shown to the defense, according to the lawsuit.
Uribe "told Jamie that if he confessed to the murder, he would definitely be sent to a state psychiatric hospital - where Jamie wanted desperately to go - not to prison," the complaint states.
Peterson eventually adopted the story the defendants had been feeding him - that he had committed the crime but "blocked out" the memory. During his first interrogation, which was unrecorded, they gave Peterson McDonald's for dinner, allowed him to smoke a cigarette, and told him information about the crime that only they and the perpetrator would know, Peterson says.
His recorded statements were "confused and nonsensical," including inaccurate and changing descriptions of what Montgomery had been wearing and how he saw into her house, which police allegedly told him was dark.
With the blessing of the county prosecutor, defendant Bruce Donnelly, for their interrogation techniques, "Jamie was interrogated a second time that night, and the pattern continued-Jamie would provide inaccurate guesses to his interrogators' questions about the crime, and would then change his responses after the investigators provided him with the 'correct' answer," the lawsuit says.
After Peterson recanted his "confessions," Heymes told Peterson and his parents that his semen had been found on Montgomery's body, a lie later disproved by DNA evidence to the contrary, according to the complaint.
"However, Defendants had by then already gotten Jamie to implicate himself, and they were not going to acknowledge that they had coerced a false confession," the complaint states. "Defendants' new theory was that while someone else was responsible for the vaginal semen, the sample of semen from the victim's shirt-which was not and could not be tested-was Jamie's."
The lawsuit says police got Peterson to name his ex-girlfriend's stepfather as his accomplice with the assurance that they would return her child from state custody and find them a place to live, which Peterson did, though the stepfather was eventually cleared along with the other accomplices Peterson was coerced into naming. The police and prosecutors eventually adopted the theory that Peterson had committed the crime with an unknown accomplice, Peterson claims.
Police went on to lie at court hearings and oppose further DNA testing that would have proven Peterson's innocence in 1997, leading to his conviction and life sentence without parole, according to his lawsuit.
Intervention by the Michigan Innocence Clinic and Northwestern Law School's Center on Wrongful Convictions in 2013 won a DNA test using new technology that determined all the semen came from Jason Ryan, an early person of interest in the rape and murder.
Ryan is in custody awaiting charges for the crimes. Peterson's conviction was vacated and he was freed in 2014.
"During his wrongful incarceration, Mr. Peterson was stripped of the various pleasures of basic human experience, from the simplest to the most important, which all free people enjoy as a matter of right," the complaint states. "He missed out on the ability to share holidays, births, funerals and other life events with loved ones, the opportunity to pursue work, and the fundamental freedom to live one's life as an autonomous human being."
Peterson's attorney, Gretchen Helfrich with Chicago-based Loevy & Loevy, said some of the officers named in the lawsuit either are, or were until recently, still working in law enforcement around Kalkaska.
"People often think these cases are about money, and to a certain extent they are, but they are also about holding these people accountable and about trying to have an airing of what actually happened here," Helfrich said.
As for Peterson, his attorney said he's doing "okay."
"He's not great, I mean, no one's great when they've spent 17 years in prison, but he's trying to get his life back together," Helfrich said.
Peterson sued the officers involved, state police, the prosecutor and the Village and County of Kalkaska in Federal Court for civil rights and due process violations, failure to intervene, malicious prosecution, emotional distress and conspiracy. Helfrich said they will seek punitive damages.
Requests for comment left with the Village and County of Kalkaska were not immediately returned.
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