DETROIT – About 20 years after his original murder trial, the homicide case against Lamarr Monson has been dropped.
Monson was arrested in 1996 for the murder of 12-year-old Christina Brown in Detroit. After a three-day trial in 1997, he was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to at least 30 years in prison.
In 2015 new fingerprints were found on the murder weapon. The Innocence Clinic at the University of Michigan law school became involved and pushed to get Monson a new trial based on the new evidence. The case was reopened and Monson was released from prison in February 2017 when he was granted a new trial.
However, the Wayne County Prosecutor's Office announced Friday he would not be heading to trial again. The case has been dismissed due to statements from Monson about how Brown was killed, lost or destroyed evidence and the new fingerprint evidence, which was found after a woman came forward and said she believed her former boyfriend killed Brown, not Monson.
Prosecutor Kym Worthy released this statement:
Christina Brown was a 12-year-old girl who ran away from home and met LaMarr Monson. While living with him, he had sex with her and she sold drugs at his behest. Her untimely death was violent and brutal. Due to the destruction of evidence, issues surrounding the way the police obtained Monson’s confession and the passage of time, we are unable to re-try this case. For similar reasons we are not able to charge anyone else in connection with the murder of Christina. The destruction of evidence and the possible coercive conduct of the then-homicide inspector in obtaining the statement of the defendant in this case cannot be condoned. Imprisoned defendants will continue to challenge their convictions. The failure of the DPD to retain critical evidence potentially threatens the very foundation of the criminal justice system and the faith placed in it by the people we protect. As a result of this case, and others, I met this year with Chief Craig about the very serious issue of the destruction of evidence in capital cases. I am pleased to say that Chief Craig has agreed to a joint DPD-WCPO workgroup to develop an evidence retention policy."
Monson's attorney: He was not having sex with Brown
Attorney David Moran, director of the Michigan Innocence Clinic, said Worthy's claim that Monson was having sex with Brown has "zero validity." He said he is disturbed that Worthy would make such a statement.
"That comes from the very same false statement from Moran about how Brown was strangled to death, when in fact she was beaten to death," said Moran. "It's disturbing that the prosecution is treating that as a fact."
The Prosecutor's Office said Monson made a false confession, which likely was coerced by police, about stabbing Brown to death in self-defense. It was during this same statement that the issue of a sexual relationship with Brown came up, Moran said, and it's all false.
Woman says her ex-boyfriend killed Brown
While Monson was serving time at the Gus Harrison Correctional Facility in Adrian in July 2012, about 15 years after his conviction, a woman named Shellena Bentley provided a statement to homicide detectives from the Detroit Police Department. She told the police that her former boyfriend, a drug user who had purchased drugs from Monson, was the person who had killed Brown, not Monson.
The Prosecutor's Office said it appears there was minimal follow up by the police after this statement from Bentley. But two years later, in December 2014, Bentley provided a second statement to the police. The two statements differed in many respects, but a motion for relief from judgment was still filed by the attorneys for Monson in 2015.
Bentley then testified at an evidentiary hearing before Judge Shannon Walker, and was questioned by an assistant prosecutor in an effort to evaluate her credibility and determine the reliability of her statement. She testified she had been smoking crack with her former boyfriend in the same building where Brown's badly mutilated body was found.
"He was dripping with blood. He had so much blood that was coming off his fingernails, it was dropping on the floor," Bentley testified.
Watch part of Bentley's testimony here:
Brown had been stabbed 18 times and beaten over the head with a toilet tank cover. Detroit police were able to get Monson to confess. However, after Bentley came forward Detroit police went back and looked at the evidence and said they found one of Bentley's boyfriend's fingerprints on the toilet tank cover. Bentley also testified she was held against her will by her boyfriend his brother.
"I was threatened through them that they knew where my kids lived and they knew what school my grandkids went to," she testified.
Monson granted new trial
On January 30, 2017, Judge Walker granted Monson’s motion for a new trial. The Prosecutor's Office said the motion was based upon two issues: 1) That Monson’s confession may have been coerced and was therefore unreliable; and 2) That Christina Brown may have been killed by the former boyfriend of Shellena Bentley.
Monson, now 44, was released in February.
"It's surreal," Monson said. "I've been dreaming about this time to hug my mom and be free, and my name is being cleared."
Investigation into Bentley's boyfriend
The Prosecutor's Office said two investigators went to Pittsburgh to interview the boyfriend of Bentley. He was found to be in poor physical health and denied any involvement in the death of Christina Brown. He said that he did live in the building at the time of the murder and that he was dating Shellena Bentley. He said he sometimes bought drugs from Monson or Christina Brown but that he had not done so on that night because he had to work early the next morning. He also said that he had been in Monson and Christina Brown’s apartment and the bathroom several times prior to the murder. He further recalled that he was in the apartment with others on the day that Brown’s body was discovered.
Reasons for dismissing case
The Prosecutor's Office listed these reasons for dismissing the case against Monson:
Although Judge Walker denied a Motion to Reconsider her predecessor’s ruling on Monson’s motion to suppress the confession, the context of Monson’s confession is an issue. Monson’s statement does not account for how Christina Brown was murdered. His statement references stabbing Brown in self-defense. The medical examiner indicated the presence of stab wounds, but that Christina Brown actually died from blunt force trauma. The initial police reports filed before the completion of the postmortem examination indicated Brown died from multiple stab wounds. This fact supports Monson’s defense of a false confession based on what the police believed was the manner of death at the time his statement was taken.
In March 1997, a federal whistleblower lawsuit was filed against the Detroit Police Department. The suit alleged that Inspector Joan Ghogoian, then Commander of the Homicide Department, told several defendants that if they confessed, they would be allowed to go home. It was further alleged that she encouraged a homicide officer to commit perjury. During the lawsuit it was revealed that the officer was reassigned when she refused to commit perjury and reported the misconduct to supervisors in her chain of command.
The issues with former Inspector Ghogoian call into question the voluntariness of Monson’s second statement. Although it was taken by a different officer, Monson alleged that a female supervisor told him he could go home if he changed his statement, and then she sent the other officer in to take the statement. In a new trial, the circumstances surrounding the confession would have been admitted into evidence, raising the question that the confession was coerced.
Lost or destroyed evidence
At an earlier hearing in 2001, Judge Patricia Fresard issued an order to preserve all evidence in this case. However key pieces of evidence have been destroyed or lost. DNA was relatively new in 1996, but some evidence was being tested in 1996. The victim’s clothing, the knife, male clothing on the floor, the toilet tank lid, and a sample taken from the tub were not tested. Glass shards that appear to have blood on them were never collected. The knife was dusted for fingerprints but nothing else. It has since been lost, so future testing is impossible. The Detroit Police Department failed to obey a court order and failed to preserve key evidence that would be crucial to a re-trial in this case.
New fingerprint evidence
The investigation and re-testing for latent prints of the toilet tank lid by the Michigan State Police was requested by the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office. As a result, seven new prints and a palm print were discovered; the new prints and the two previously unidentified prints were ultimately identified as belonging Shellena Bentley’s former boyfriend. This evidence creates a reasonable doubt that Monson was the killer of Christina Brown.
Conversely, the destruction of important evidence in the case makes it difficult to charge the former boyfriend. By his own admission he was frequently at Monson’s apartment and places himself there on the day the body was discovered. The fact that his prints were discovered on the toilet tank lid is not sufficient evidence to bring charges for the murder of Christina Brown.