Lacino Hamilton: “They manufactured witnesses–It’s great for me and my family, but still dozens of others in there” that should be freed
Hamilton, Ramon Ward, Marvin Cotton, Anthony Legion, others convicted on false testimony from infamous Detroit Police Dept. “Ring of Snitches”
Supporters sponsor a GoFundMe site for Hamilton to help him get on his feet; exonerees receive no compensation for months afterwards
By Diane Bukowski
October 4, 2020
DETROIT–A free man after 26 years, Lacino Hamilton, now 45, walked out of Macomb Correctional Facility in New Haven, Michigan Sept. 30 into the arms of cheering supporters, including legal professionals and former prisoners. He had just been exonerated of second-degree murder charges in the death his beloved foster mother Willa Bias in Detroit in 1994, for which he was serving a virtual life term of 52 to 80 years.
“I’m super-excited, looking forward to the rest of my life,” he declared, as a host of television and print reporters gathered around him. His appeals attorneys Mary Chartier and Takura Nyamfukudza had just driven him into a golf course parking lot next to prison grounds.
“I want to get as far away from this prison as possible and I want to see my mother and father,” Hamilton said. “I haven’t seen them since I’ve been incarcerated.”
The first to embrace him as he exited his attorney’s car was Ramon Ward, exonerated in February after serving 27 years in prison on false double murder charges.
Both were victims of the Detroit Police Department’s infamous “Ring of Snitches,” as Aaron Miguel Cantu of TruthOut magazine characterized it in a groundbreaking article five years ago.
It was that article, which featured Hamilton in the lead, that first broadly exposed what had happened in Hamilton’s and hundreds of other cases on the infamous Ninth Floor of the old DPD headquarters at 1300 Beaubien. Detectives plied chosen prisoners with reduced charges, alcohol, sex, and other privileges in exchange for testifying falsely at the trials of targeted prisoners that they heard them confess to the crimes for which they were charged.
“The police manufactured witnesses,” Hamilton said later. “This was not a mistake. What happened to me and Ramon happened to dozens of others. For my family and friends it’s great, but there are many other innocent people in there. I know them.”
He credited his faith in God and his firm belief that the truth would come out for his ability to withstand his wrongful incarceration.
He thanked attorneys Chartier and Nyamfukudza, and Claudia Whitman of the Death Row Assistance Project. He said they and their staffs had taken his case pro bono and fought it for the last six years on evidence of false testimony from jailhouse snitch Olivera Rico Cowen and others.
The Western Michigan University/Cooley Law School Innocence Project and the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU) took it up, finding newly-discovered DNA evidence which they said was key to Hamilton’s exoneration. It involved DNA testing of tissue taken from under the victim’s fingernails in 1994, which had not been previously tested. It ruled Hamilton out as the killer.
Hamilton also thanked the many other prisoners including paralegal Travis Herndon, who had helped him during the long years inside the walls. He said his release resulted from a community effort by many people during those years.
Herndon is the legal adviser for Voice of Detroit. He works with Prisoners Doing the Right Thing, founded by the late Timothy Kincaid, a Michigan juvenile lifer released in 2016, who was much respected by other incarcerated individuals.
“I met Lacino years ago, when he first came into the system in the 1990’s,” Herndon said. “He would always question me about the law, but ‘Cino had more of an analytical mind. He didn’t just accept things told to him. He wanted to go deeper, into the origin of things.
“I was taken by him, because he was so young. It was something that always bugged him about how people in general are treated. We’d be walking the yard talking about legal issues. If he saw something like a fight taking place on the yard, and he felt he should intervene to stop it, he did it by communicating with the individuals. The next day I’d see Cino sitting on the bench in the yard talking to one of the guys that he hadn’t even known.
“Here’s a guy, 24 or 25, who would talk to me about social issues, matters in other countries. He would be researching on the legal front because he wanted his freedom. But he put the same amount of energy into social issues. He was so young to have this type of knowledge, and he was very articulate when he spoke. He explained everything so clearly.”
During his time in prison, Hamilton wrote numerous profound analytical articles for TruthOut and other publications, including one describing his treatment in solitary confinement, which has been condemned as torture by organizations globally, “I am Buried Alive in a Michigan Prison.”
“I am buried alive inside Michigan’s Marquette Maximum Security Prison. I am locked in a windowless cell measuring 10×8 feet, 24 hours per day. For one hour every other day, I am handcuffed, chained around the waist and allowed exercise and a shower in a small cage. I am not allowed to interact with others, or to participate in any educational, vocational, or employment programs. All meals are delivered to the cell. I have no access to a phone. And while I am permitted two, one hour non-contact visits per month — always conducted through glass — Marquette is 455 miles away from my hometown of Detroit. Opportunities to visit family and friends are rare. For all intents and purposes, I am dead to everything but melancholic anxieties and horrible despair. This is torture.”
In another essay quoted in the TruthOut article, Hamilton said, “How some of us live is not a mistake; neither is it the product of a broken system. We live like that because it is profitable to a lot of people businesses: pawn shops, pay-day loan services, slum lords, creditors, social services, and others who traffic in misery.”
“We made the decision long ago to never give up fighting for Mr. Hamilton’s release,” Atty. Chartier said in a release. “While we are beyond thrilled that all charges have been dismissed, he lost 26 years of his life waiting for this day. . . Many of the thousands of men and women who are wrongfully imprisoned have been convicted based on ‘snitch’ testimony.
“In Mr. Hamilton’s case, the ‘snitch’ claimed in numerous cases that men—men who were strangers—had spontaneously confessed murder to him. Police knew this yet continued to claim that he was reliable and use him as a witness. . . If we truly want to stop innocent men and women from being convicted and imprisoned, then we have to reform our criminal prosecution system now. There are ways to do it. Michigan just needs to act.”
Atty. Nyamfukudz said, I’m sad to say that this is actually not unique—there are many many people who are doing time behind bars right now based on the testimony of people who for whatever reason have given a story, and either because police or sometimes prosecutors [chose] to turn a blind eye or just not to do the right thing, there are people doing time behind bars.”
Hamilton said that he will work to find ways n which a “competitive criminal justice system” can address cases such as his. “It’s not all about winning and losing,” he said. Under federal and state laws, prosecutors are tasked with finding the truth about a defendant’s guilt or innocence, not with winning every case.
In “Ring of Snitches,” TruthOut reported that “Hamilton was imprisoned with a man named Darnell Thompson, who claims he was threatened by police into pinning the crime on Hamilton. In an affidavit reviewed by Truthout, Thompson said that homicide detectives and prisoner Olivera Rico Cowen conspired to pressure him into testifying against Hamilton. Thompson, who was 18 at the time, says he was coerced into signing a statement against Hamilton, but he later refused to testify against Hamilton in court. But Thompson’s statement, as well as Cowen’s testimony and testimony about Hamilton’s character by a neighbor, were enough for a jury to convict Hamilton to a maximum of 80 years in prison.
“Chartier says Cowen’s testimony was a critical reason for the conviction, even though he was also instrumental in six other murder convictions, according to court documents.”
According to Northwestern University Law School’s Center on Wrongful Convictions, 45.9 percent of documented wrongful capital convictions (nationally) have been traced to false informant testimony, making “snitches the leading cause of wrongful convictions in U.S. capital cases.” https://digitalcommons.law.ggu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1942&context=ggulrev
RAMON WARD, EXONERATED FEB. 2020, ALSO ‘SNITCH’ VICTIM
Ramon Ward held Hamilton in an emotional bear hug as he left his attorney’s car, both recalling the years of wrongful incarceration they had experienced.
“We walked through the storm together,” Ward said. “I’m proud to be here to experience the joy again.” Ward said since his release, he has founded “Justice Denied,” an LLC meant to assist returning citizens.
Ward was there with Justice Denied’s co-founder, his fiancee Roeiah Epps, a UD-Mercy Law School graduate awaiting her bar exam results.
He said Justice Denied assists returning citizens, prisoners fighting wrongful convictions, and the wrongfully accused. It focuses particularly on exonerees, who do not receive immediate compensation for the years they spent behind bars, but must wait six months for Michigan’s state fund to pay them. (It has been reported recently that the fund is temporarily depleted.} Any other compensation requires a lawsuit to be filed after an attorney is located.
Ward was exonerated last February after spending 27 years in prison for the 1994 shooting deaths of deaths of two women in Detroit. Cowen, the snitch in Hamilton’s case, and Joe Twilley, who testified in dozens of other cases, perjured themselves by claiming falsely that Ward confessed to them while they were housed together on DPD’s Ninth Floor.
PROSECUTOR DISMISSES MARVIN COTTON, ANTHONY LEGION CASES
The day after Hamilton’s release, on Oct. 1, Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy announced that her office had dismissed the cases of co-defendants Marvin Cotton and Anthony Legion, sentenced to life without parole for the 2001 murder of Jamon McIntyre in Detroit.
A third defendant, “positively” identified by the same witness who identified Cotton and Legion, was not tried after Detroit Police confirmed his alibi.
The release says these two dismissals are not considered “exonerations,” which would wipe the individuals’ records clear of the murder and qualify them for a state reimbursement fund. See full release at: http://voiceofdetroit.net/wp-content/uploads/Brady-violation-2020_October_1_-_Legion_and_Cotton_release_-_Final12146.pdf
“This is not a case of actual innocence,” Worthy’s communications director Maria Miller said. “This is a case where release was granted because of the Brady violation and the lies told by the jail house snitch.”
Cotton was released Oct. 1 after a judge granted his motion for relief from judgment and Worthy decided not to re-try him. Legion’s conviction in this case was vacated, but he remains in prison until Feb. 2021 related to another case.
“These cases all centered on the issue of identification,” Worthy said in a release. “The witness in Mr. Legion and Mr. Cotton’s cases who testified at trial was the same male identifying witness in the third defendant’s case, along with a male jail house informant.”
The release says DPD’s chief investigative officer (CIO) in the case did not provide key evidence to the prosecution, in violation of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963).
Brady requires prosecutors to disclose exculpatory evidence to the defense. The ruling holds the prosecution responsible for Brady violations by police.
The CIO is not identified in the release, but Worthy’s office has said that she will be releasing an updated Brady list of police and other law enforcement officers charged with crimes of dishonesty and other matters next week. No charges are pending against police and other officials who engineered the frame-up.
In 2016, Ryan Felton wrote an article for the Metro Times, “Is Marvin Cotton Innocent,” as well as other articles examining likely wrongful convictions. He identified Ellis Frazier as the jailhouse informant recruited by police to testify against Cotton.
“More than a dozen years later, he has since pulled back his entire testimony, saying it was ‘completely fabricated and untrue.’ Felton wrote, noting that Frazier had provided an affidavit to Cotton affirming his statements. Felton quoted the following from the affidavit:
“I have never even met or talked to Marvin Cotton, and he did not confess to me about being a part of any crime like I testified to at the trial. All of the information and details in the police statement was pre-written and wholly composed by the homicide detective.”
Felton identified the DPD officers involved as Donald Hughes, Ernest Wilson, and Walter Bates.
In this article on the exoneration of Ramon Ward, VOD urged investigations of other “Ring of Snitches” cases including Lacino Hamilton and Marvin Cotton https://voiceofdetroit.net/2020/02/28/ramon-ward-family-celebrate-release-after-27-yrs-on-false-conviction-when-will-100s-more-be-freed/
METRO TIMES ARTICLE ON MARVIN COTTON https://www.metrotimes.com/detroit/after-15-years-convicted-murderer-persuades-court-to-re-examine-case/Content?oid=2464503
Published articles by Lacino Hamilton