Notorious jail-house informants Twilley, Cowen gave perjured testimony in dozens of other cases including Ward’s
“Ring of Snitches” used by DPD, WCPO has been exposed repeatedly since the ‘90’s, in mainstream, other media
“Relying on lying witnesses and informants is common in Detroit”–Thelonious “Shawn” Searcy
Wayne Co. Pros. Kym Worthy’s office mum on whether it will open other such “snitch” investigations
“PROSECUTORS PUT A MICHIGAN MAN IN PRISON FOR LIFE. THEN THEY GOT HIM OUT.” Bridge Magazine headline on Ramon Ward story.
By Diane Bukowski
February 24, 2019
DETROIT – Ramon Ward, wrongfully convicted at 18 of murdering two Detroit women in 1994 and sentenced to life without parole, and 40-60 years, walked free after a court hearing Feb. 20, into the waiting arms of his joyous family and supporters.
He had spent 26 years in prison based on the perjured testimony of two notorious “jail-house snitches,” Joe Twilley and Oliver Cowen, and a false, unsigned confession presented into evidence by former Detroit police officer Monica Childs, according to court records.
Twilley and Cowen’s role in obtaining false convictions, along with that of other jail-house and street snitches recruited by Detroit police and prosecutors still working today, has been well-documented since the mid-90’s. Investigative news articles, and at least one book, Who Do You Serve, Who Do You Protect?: Police Violence and Resistance in the United States, by Maya Schenwar, Joe Macaré, et al. (TruthOut) have estimated that Twilley was involved in 20 to 100 cases.
“I know there are more like me,” Ward told a reporter from Bridge Magazine after the hearing. “I know them by name.” Other exonerees like Mubarez Ahmed have made similar statements on their release. (See remarks at end of video below.) Ahmed, like many others whose release the Conviction Integrity Unit took credit for, waited for a new trial for months after his release before Prosecutor Worthy finally dropped the charges before the scheduled trial.
At the Feb. 20 hearing, Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Donald Knapp ruled, “This matter having been presented in open court through the stipulation of the parties, and the parties having agreed that newly discovered evidence warrants relief . . . it is hereby ordered that Mr. Ward’s convictions and sentences in this matter are hereby vacated, and all related charges are hereby dismissed. Mr. Ward shall be released forthwith.”
Judge Knapp included no findings of fact in his order. At press time, the joint motion filed by AP Valerie Newman, head of Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy’s Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU), and defense attorney John Smietanka had not been provided to VOD, despite requests to both parties.
The Detroit Free Press reported, “Smietanka said a witness came forward several years ago claiming he was at the scene of the murder and knew Ward, verifying he was not the one who committed the crime. The witness’ story was verified and they were considered credible, Smietanka said.”
Ward was convicted of the shooting deaths of Sharon Cornell and Joan Gilliam on Jan. 21, 1994 in an alleged drug house on Moran Street in Detroit. Twilley and Cowen testified that he told them about the murders while they were housed together on the infamous 9th floor of the Wayne County Jail, where DPD used its “ring of snitches” to falsely convict hundreds.
In a statement, Worthy said in part, “The original police investigation identified no eyewitnesses. There was no physical evidence that linked Ward to the murders. As a result of investigation by the Conviction Integrity Unit other evidence showed conclusively that Mr. Ward did not commit the crimes. . . .Mr. Ward served over half of his life in prison for crimes he did not commit. . . .our intensive investigation showed that he is certainly entitled to the relief we requested today. We remain committed to thoroughly reviewing all CIU cases and will support Mr. Ward’s anticipated state claim for relief under the Wrongful Imprisonment Compensation Act.”
Maria Miller of Prosecutor Worthy’s office added that the dismissal of charges was “without prejudice,” meaning charges can be brought back later if the prosecution desires. Knapp’s order did not cite “actual innocence,” but “newly-discovered evidence” as its basis.
The CIU claims responsibility for up to 18 exonerations since its reconstitution in 2018. But this is the first case VOD has seen in which the CIU played such a direct role.
Most exonerations, like those of Richard Phillips, Mubarez Ahmed, Davontae Sanford, Kendrick Scott, Justly Johnson, Lamarr Monson, and others have been ordered by judges after entities like the Michigan Innocence Clinic and retained attorneys have thoroughly re-investigated the cases. Primarily, Prosecutor Worthy has ensured the delay of the defendants’ release, sometimes for months afterwards, until her office decides whether or not to re-try them.
Even then, she has refused to admit the culpability of her office in the original convictions.
In his groundbreaking 2015 TruthOut exposé “Ring of Snitches: How Detroit Police Slapped False Murder Convictions On Young Black Men,” reporter Aaron Miguel Cantu recounted the cases of Dwight Carl Love, Lacino Hamilton, and Larry Darnell Smith. The last two are still incarcerated despite the 1997 exposure of the “ring of snitches” and DPD “miscellaneous files” containing withheld exculpatory evidence in the Love case. In his story, Cantu includes affidavits from several of the jail-house informants, one of whom, Edward Allen, estimated that over 100 murder convictions were obtained through use of their perjured testimony.
He says Detroiter Dwight Carl Love was exonerated and freed in 1997 after 15 years, “through the efforts of a tenacious defense attorney named Sarah Hunter with a whistleblower inside Detroit’s homicide unit.” Love’s case was covered in daily media and became famous as the case which first exposed the Detroit Police Department’s use of “miscellaneous files,” in which they hid exculpatory evidence.
Lacino Hamilton was accused of killing his foster mother, who raised him, on June 28, 1994. Another prisoner, Christopher Brooks, sent an affidavit dated Aug. 4, 2013 to the Michigan Innocence Clinic, stating that he saw the real killer Lonnie Bell (now deceased) leaving the home of Willa “Bee” Bias with a gun after she was killed and later obtained a confession from him.
“Hamilton’s murder conviction hinged on two pieces of evidence: a coerced statement, and testimony from a jailhouse informant claiming that Hamilton confessed to the murder while awaiting trial in his jail cell,” Cantu writes.
“But according to affidavits, courthouse transcripts, letters and internal memos obtained by Truthout, the informant – who is long deceased – may have received incentives from Detroit police to falsely testify against a number of individuals. These documents also suggest that the informant was part of a ring of jailhouse informants – or “snitches” – that allegedly received lenient sentences as well as food, drugs, sex and special privileges from detectives in the Detroit Police Department’s homicide division in return for making statements against dozens of prisoners eventually convicted of murder.”
When Larry Smith was 18, he says he was detained for a murder without an attorney, allowing police to fabricate a false statement by him. Jail-house informant Edward Allen, whose letter to investigators is linked above, corroborated that statement at trial, but later wrote to Smith recanting his testimony. See http://voiceofdetroit.net/wp-content/uploads/Edward.Allen_.Letter.Larry_.Smith_.compressed.pdf
Smith’s attorney Mary Owens told Cantu, “In many cases, even if all the witnesses have recanted, or if a person claims innocence, it’s still difficult to [overturn a conviction]. “The courts are more concerned with whether the trial has been procedurally proper.”
Reporter Ryan Felton likewise exposed similar frame-ups using informants in numerous articles. They included the case of Bernard Howard, sentenced to life in 1995, and Marvin Cotton, sentenced in 2001 after the testimony of snitch Ellis Frazier.
See links to his stories at: https://jalopnik.com/the-would-be-auto-worker-caught-up-in-a-detroit-prison-1794192411) and https://www.metrotimes.com/detroit/after-15-years-convicted-murderer-persuades-court-to-re-examine-case/Content?oid=2464503.)
But the use of jail-house informants by police and prosecutors has continued unabated. During the term of current Prosecutor Kym Worthy, who took office in 2004, VOD has covered other cases using jail-house snitches, including that of Charles Jones, the father of Aiyana Jones, 7, killed by a DPD military raid team in 2010.
Jones was convicted of second-degree murder and perjury in the death of Je’Rean Blake two days prior to the raid on his mother’s home which resulted in Aiyana’s death. He was sentenced to 40-60 years. He recently pled ‘nolo contendere’ to a charge of manslaughter, after a Court of Appeals overturned his original conviction.
The plea should allow him to see the parole board soon. His attorney and family agreed with that action because the extended Jones family has been so vilified in media accounts of Aiyana’s death that they did not feel he could get a fair re-trial.
But evidence at his trial was based predominantly on the testimony of two particularly vile jail-house informants, Jay Schlenkerman and Qasim Rakib.
Schlenkerman, a white downriver resident, had his original charge of “kidnapping” in the confinement and torture of his girl friend dropped to misdemeanor domestic violence after he provided a detailed statement to prosecutors falsely claiming Aiyana’s uncle Chauncey Owens told him Jones gave him the murder gun.
Qasim Raqib, housed at the Wayne County Jail during Jones’ trial, was charged with first-degree murder in the death of Shelley Hilliard, a transgender woman, ironically killed because she was about to testify in a case against a drug dealer. He testified Jones himself told him he got the gun and used it. His charge was dropped to second-degree murder, allowing him a chance at parole.
A long video of Owens’ interrogation by DPD directly after Aiyana’s death, shown only at Owens’ trial, not that of Jones, contradicts their testimony. Owens names another man as the person who gave him the gun, and has never testified otherwise..
VOD has also covered the case of Carl Hubbard, in which Curtiss Collins, who originally testified against him at his murder trial under coercion from the DPD, has long recanted his statement. VOD interviewed Collins below, but Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Lawrence Talon rejected Hubbard’s third motion for relief from judgment Oct. 2, 2019, primarily citing procedural matters.
But he also said that he did not believe Collins’ statement, although such a determination is up to a jury, not a judge who did not preside over Hubbard’s 1992 trial. Hubbard’s trial attorney Ronald Giles, now a judge, said Collins’ testimony was key to Hubbard’s conviction. There were no eyewitnesses who saw Hubbard commit the crime.
Thelonious “Shawn” Searcy is awaiting a ruling from the Michigan Supreme Court after a stunning evidentiary hearing in front of Judge Timothy Kenny, which VOD thoroughly covered. See http://voiceofdetroit.net/2018/07/15/prosecutors-cops-techs-lied-falsified-evidence-vs-thelonious-searcy-atty-says-in-final-hearing/.
During the hearing, self-confessed hit man Vincent Smothers testified that he killed the victim in the case. Judge Townsend’s instructions to the jury at trial included a claim that the bullets which killed the victim were not identifiable, when in fact a re-examination of the forensic evidence showed that they were .40 caliber bullets, not bullets from the .45 caliber gun the prosecution claimed was the murder weapon used by Searcy.
Part of the trial testimony which convicted Searcy was his identification by a street snitch, DeAnthony Witcher, who knew Searcy and had been arrested by DPD Nov. 18, 2004, in illegal possession of a 9 mm handgun, one week before Searcy’s arrest on Nov. 30, 2004. Police never charged Witcher in that case, although they impounded the blue Corvette.
Searcy told VOD, “This is a shame that prosecutors and judges are allowed to break the law freely in Detroit. [I] have been sitting in prison because OUR judicial system failed to properly investigate [my] case. Relying on lying witnesses and informants is common in Detroit.”
Witcher was recruited to testify by DPD homicide detective Dale Collins, who also participated in numerous other “snitch” frameups including that of Davontae Sanford. AP Patrick Muscat prosecuted both Searcy and Sanford. Dale Collins also participating in Sanford’s frame-up, along with homicide detectives Michael Russell and James Tolbert, according to a scathing Michigan State Police report included in VOD’s dozens of stories on the wrongful conviction of Davontae Sanford.
The Detroit News called for a wider investigation after the MSP report surfaced:
“[T]he Sanford case lends credence to other allegations of bungled justice against the prosecutor’s office,” its editorial said in part. “The University of Michigan’s Innocence Clinic has a fat file of cases in which it believes Wayne County and Detroit cops either ignored evidence of innocence or distorted evidence to prove guilt. [Then State AG] Schuette should review all those cases as well. . . .Finally, if Sanford’s wrongful conviction is an indicator of wider problems in the Detroit Police Department and Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office, this is fertile ground for a civil rights investigation by the federal Justice Department.”
VOD’s stories on the Sanford case are all linked inside the following: http://voiceofdetroit.net/2016/07/21/davontae-sanford-formally-freed-time-for-charges-vs-kym-worthy-cops-in-frame-up/
Lacino Hamilton wrote to TruthOut, “By now, the demonstrative wasting away of Black life in urban areas, such as Detroit, has become an historical and social fact, called neglect. I mean what else can it be? Society places little to no value on Black lives. And what people don’t value, they don’t bother with … I’m in prison because no one wondered, cared, or took the time to ask how a handful of serial offenders [snitches] could show up in court again and again to have received unsolicited confessions – neglect.”
In “A Ring of Snitches,” Cantu says, “ . . . in places like Michigan, where there are no regulations for using informant testimony beyond prosecutors knowing and admitting to it, there has never been a serious investigation into the systematic use of jailhouse informants by police and prosecutors.”
In an email, VOD asked the prosecutor’s office whether the CIU would open an investigation into all the other cases in which Twilley, Cowen and other jailhouse informants were used, and whether criminal charges would be filed against police, prosecutors and others who recruited them.
No response has been received to date.
“PROSECUTORS PUT A MICHIGAN MAN IN PRISON FOR LIFE. THEN THEY GOT HIM OUT.” Bridge Magazine headline on Ramon Ward story.
During his court hearing, Ward, understandably overwhelmed, read a handwritten statement in which he expressed thanks to God, his family, “who never gave up on me,” and Pros. Worthy and the CIU “for caring enough to listen to my many pleas, which fell on deaf ears for years. You believed in me when no one else would.”
However, did the Wayne County Prosecutor’s office really listen to Ward’s pleas, including those in 26 years of appeals which they opposed, or did they knowingly conspire to keep him locked up?
He has four state appeals on record, dated in 2004, 2005 and 2012, all during the tenure of Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy. Before she became the county prosecutor in 2004, Worthy was an assistant prosecutor beginning in 1984. Everyone in the prosecutor’s office should have been fully aware of the exposures regarding jail-house snitches that began in the early 1990’s, when Ward and hundreds of others were convicted.
VOD reviewed the appeals in detail, and noted that from 1995 on, the State Appellate Defender’s office, where Valerie Newman worked for 28 years, represented Ward on his state-level appeals, except for the final appeal in 2012, which Ward submitted pro se. There is a note in the register for that appeal that SADO declined to represent him then. All the appeals end with the submission of a federal habeas corpus petition, but his case appears never to have made it to federal court.
Ward was convicted in 1995 in a jury trial held in front of then Recorders Court Judge Leonard Townsend. Days after his sentencing on Jan. 28, 1995, Deputy Assistant Prosecutor Robert Agacinski sent a memo titled “Police Use of Prisoners to Obtain Confessions,” dated Feb. 8, 1995, to his superior Richard Padzieski, Chief of Operations, which outlined his concerns regarding jail-house informants including Twilley and Cowen. It also cited DPD homicide officers Dale Collins and William Rice as complicit in having Twilley’s sentence reduced as a reward for his cooperation.
But in “Who Do You Serve, Who Do You Protect,” the authors say Agacinski, who went on to become the head of Michigan’s attorney grievance commission for 14 years, told them nothing was ever done to address his concerns.
“I was low-middle ranking management,” Agacinski told TruthOut. “I was never part of top-level. Nobody ever told me anything else and I have no idea if the [memo] was ever acted on.”
VOD also asked Worthy’s office whether any charges would be brought against Detroit cops and Wayne County prosecutors in the growing number of wrongful convictions that are being exposed presently. Needless to say, there was no comment.
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