How an innocent Detroit man ended up in prison for nearly 30 years with no physical evidence

Gerry Thomas exonerated this year

Gerry Thomas and his sisters Lois and Mary moments after his exoneration and release from 29 years in prison on January 13, 2020. Photo by Suzy Salamy/Innocence Project.
Gerry Thomas and his sisters Lois and Mary moments after his exoneration and release from 29 years in prison on January 13, 2020. Photo by Suzy Salamy/Innocence Project. (WDIV)

DETROIT – A woman identified Gerry Thomas as a man who attacked her in Detroit two years after the incident.

That woman’s identification of Thomas sent him to prison for nearly 30 years for a crime he didn’t actually commit. Thomas was exonerated last month.

Woman attacked by unknown man

The woman reported that she was attacked in her car outside a store in the area of Minnesota and Dequindre streets in Detroit in November 1987.

According to the National Registry of Exonerations, a man with a butcher knife got in her car and told her to drive while her 6-year-old son was in the store getting a snack. The man told the woman where to drive. She said that when they finally stopped, he demanded her jewelry and wallet before he made her perform a sexual act on him.

The man stabbed the woman in the chest after she bit him, she said, and she cut herself while struggling to grab the knife. The man then jumped over the center console. The woman was able to get out of the car, and the man fled with her car.

She provided a description of the attacker to police. She told police he was a black man with a dark complexion. He stood about 5 feet, 9 inches tall and had a medium build.

Thomas identified as attacker

The next month, police located and stopped the woman’s car. A 16-year-old boy was driving and a 20-year-old man was a passenger.

Police put the men in a lineup, but the woman did not identify them as the man who attacked her.

In September 1989, the woman saw a man walking in Detroit. She thought it was her attacker and took police to the area later. She pointed out Thomas, who was eating lunch at a Burger King, as her attacker. This led police to put him in a lineup.

The woman picked Thomas out of a lineup.

Despite not matching the description the woman initially gave police -- Thomas has a light complexion, was 6 feet, 4 inches tall and weighed around 240 pounds -- he was charged with criminal sexual conduct, armed robbery, and assault with intent to commit murder. He went to trial in 1991.

Case goes to trial

The woman testified that the seat of her car was pushed all the way up while the attacker sat in it, since it had been pushed up when her son got out, an interesting detail given Thomas’ height.

Also, a detective testified that police reports from when the car was recovered did not say if the car was checked for evidence, such as fingerprints or blood.

Despite this lack of evidence, a jury found Thomas guilty of criminal sexual conduct, armed robbery and assault with intent to commit murder in January 1991.

Thomas’ sentence was changed several times.

His initial sentence of 40-60 years was amended to 60-75 years. He argued against that sentence, referencing a Michigan ruling that prohibited minimum sentences that are more than two-thirds of the max sentence. A hearing was held, and his sentence was upped to 60-90 years.

Thomas appealed. His sentenced was reduced to 50-75 years in 1994.

Thomas fights for freedom

He contacted the Innocence Project in 2002, and his case was accepted in 2010. The Project helps to identify wrongful convictions to get innocent people exonerated.

The Innocence Project worked with the Western Michigan University Cooley Law School to try and find physical evidence tying Thomas to the case, but none was ever discovered.

In late 2017, the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office’s Conviction Integrity Unit reviewed the case per the request of the Innocence Project.

This review revealed that the boy who was driving the woman’s car when it was pulled over a month after the crime told police his brother let him borrow the car. The car was registered to the brother, but he was never considered a suspect.

It is not known if prosecutors ever received that information.

Additionally, according to the National Registry of Exonerations, that brother matched the description given by the woman better than Thomas did.

The investigation also determined that Thomas would not have been able to fit into the car with the seat pushed up the way the woman said it was. Also, Thomas was too large to hop over the center console and into the driver’s seat.

Thomas’ conviction was vacated on Jan. 13, 2020.