DETROIT (CN) – The Michigan Supreme Court on Monday granted two men retrials for the 1999 slaying of a woman in Detroit after her son came forward with childhood memories that cast doubt on the identity of the killers and support the men’s claims of innocence.
Justly Johnson and Kendrick Scott were convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole, and have been imprisoned for more than 18 years.
They were found guilty of the shooting murder of Lisa Kindred on Mother’s Day in the Detroit’s east side 19 years ago. Kindred had been waiting in a van with her children during the early hours of May 9 when she was shot her in the heart. She drove to a nearby gas station with her kids, collapsed and later died in hospital.
A trial court judge and then an appeals court rejected the testimony of her son, Charmous Skinner Jr., who was 8 years old when his mother was slain, but is now in his late 20s.
When the Michigan University Innocence Clinic asked for a new trial, Skinner described the shooter as in his early 30s and having a big nose and beard. That description is at odds with the appearances of Johnson and Scott at the time of the murder.
Skinner told the court that police did not interview him about the incident. Though he had refrained from describing the events of that night to his immediate family and a counselor, he told an investigative reporter in 2011 that he had seen the shooter illuminated by the van’s dome light, and that photos of the defendants did not match his memory of the killer.
The Michigan Supreme Court said in an opinion published Monday that the trial court had committed several errors in rejecting Johnson and Scott’s motions for a new trial.
The trial judge had concluded, without evidence in the record, that Skinner was sleeping in the van at the time of the incident, could not have seen the man in the dark, and, based on the judge’s own cloudy memory, could not have possibly have remembered what the man looked like.
The state’s high court also pointed to problems with the testimonies of Antonio Burnette and Raymond Jackson, who testified for the prosecution during the trials. They said Johnson and Scott had shot Kindred, but later asserted that police had pressured them to make false statements and recanted their testimony.
“An examination of the trial testimony alone indicates that defendants’ convictions were based on shaky grounds. Consequently, when Skinner’s testimony is considered in conjunction with the other evidence presented at the original trials, we find that a different result is reasonably probable on retrial,” Justice Richard Bernstein wrote for the court’s 4-1 majority.
Justice Brian Zahra wrote a dissenting opinion that attacked the credibility of the new evidence. He argued that even if it were credible, it would not have affected the result of the trials.
Two justices abstained from the decision because of their prior involvement in the case.