PONTIAC, Mich. – A wrongful conviction lawsuit has been filed on behalf of a man who served more than 30 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit.
Gilbert Lee Poole Jr. was wrongly convicted in the 1988 murder of Robert Mejia. He spent more than 30 years in prison and walked free in May 2021 after the Innocence Project got involved in his case.
On May 23, 2023, Fieger Law filed a wrongful conviction lawsuit on behalf of Poole seeking $100 million.
“Mr. Poole’s life, liberty and freedom were stolen from him. He did not have a choice. He spent 31 years locked in a living hell for a crime he didn’t commit. Fortunately, Mr. Poole was fully exonerated and can begin to repair his life,” James Harrington of Fieger Law said.
The real killer still has not been brought to justice.
Robert Mejia found dead in woods in 1988
Robert Mejia, 35, was last seen alive on the morning of June 6, 1988.
Mejia was a gay man. Witnesses said they saw him at Popper’s Lounge speaking with a man that patrons and employees of the bar said they had not seen before.
The man was described “as looking like a drifter or a member of a motorcycle gang.” He was wearing jeans, boots, a black leather vest, and some sort of biker cap. Witnesses said he had a “bushy beard,” “full mustache,” and hair “feathered on the side and long in the back.”
Mejia’s friend Robert Lisk told police the man gave him a bad vibe and he asked Mejia not to leave with him.
Meijia was living with his mother, Christina Mejia, at the time. She said that around 1:30 a.m. on June 6, she heard her son call out “I’m home.” She did not see him. When she looked for him 30 minutes later she did not find him.
Mejia’s body was discovered by joggers on the morning of June 7, 1988. He was found near a running path in the woods behind his apartment complex in Pontiac.
He had been stabbed, his carotid artery had been slashed and he had been bitten through the sleeve of his shirt above his elbow on his right arm. There was blood on several small rocks near his body. Mejia’s pants had been pulled down below his waist.
Police created two composite sketches of a suspect based on descriptions provided by Lisk and others at Popper’s Lounge. The images were published in the Oakland Press but no leads developed and the case went cold.
The trial of Gilbert Lee Poole Jr.
In November 1988, a woman in High Point, North Carolina, said she had information on an unsolved murder in Michigan.
That woman, Connie Cook, was dating Gilbert Lee Poole Jr. The two of them had lived in Pontiac until a few days after Mejia’s death. They moved south to find work and be closer to Poole’s family.
Cook was unable to provide accurate details about when the crime happened. Despite that, she still became the key witness. She said Poole had returned home in the early morning of June 6, 1988, with scratches on his face and arms and that he had confessed to killing a man during a robbery.
Poole was arrested in North Carolina on Dec. 27, 1988, and charged with murder. The trial started in Oakland County on May 30, 1989. The case was based on Cook’s testimony, witness testimony from Popper’s Lounge, and bitemark analysis of the wound on Mejia’s arm.
Connie Cook testifies
In Cook’s testimony, she said that they were both unemployed in early June 1988 and almost out of money.
She said that on June 5, after an argument, Poole said he was going to go out and get some money. She said when he returned home hours later, he told her he had gone to a gay bar and picked up a man.
She said Poole told her they had left in the man’s car and driven to the man’s apartment to get cocaine. Then she said Poole told her they went to the woods behind the apartment and Poole tried to rob the man. Cook said Poole told her that he had fought with the man before stabbing him and watching “the guy drown in his own blood.”
She testified that Poole told her he took the man’s car keys and drove the car back to Popper’s. She said Poole showed her his watch to convince her he was telling the truth and that it was covered in blood. Cook said she placed the watch in the console of their car and later cleaned it with a ring cleaner.
While under cross-examination, Cook admitted that she originally told police that the murder she said Poole confessed to happened in January and not June. She was also asked why she would move with Poole to North Carolina just days after he allegedly confessed to a murder. She said she was scared because Poole told her she could be charged as an accessory.
Robert Lisk testifies
Mejia’s friend Robert Lisk also testified at the trial. He said he saw Poole talking with Mejia on the night he was last seen.
Lisk testified that Mejia introduced Poole as “Lee,” which is Poole’s middle name. Lisk did not mention that to the police the first time he was interviewed. He said he remembered the name after reading articles about Poole’s arrest in the newspaper. Those articles included Poole’s middle name.
Two bartenders testify
Two people who were working as bartenders at Popper’s Lounge the night Mejia was last seen provided testimony.
Charles York said he saw Mejia and Poole talking at the bar before leaving at 1:40 a.m. He said Poole was wearing shorts and a blue shirt. That is not the outfit Lisk described.
Kerry Johnson testified that he did not see Poole at the bar. He said he saw Mejia leave with a group of people, but he wasn’t sure who. His testimony was different from his statement at a preliminary hearing. At a preliminary hearing, he said Mejia had left with Hank Clayton.
Hank Clayton testifies
Witnesses said Mejia and Hank Clayton had dated for a short time and that Mejia might have shunned Clayton the night he died.
Clayton testified that he saw Poole at the bar that night. His testimony did not match his initial statement to the police. In his initial statement, he described the man talking to Mejia as clean-cut.
Mike DePlaunty testifies
Mike DePlaunty testified that he saw Mejia leave the bar before 12:30 a.m. and that Poole was still there.
Forensic serologist testifies
A forensic serologist with the Michigan State Police testified.
Melinda Jackson said that Mejia had type O blood. All the blood found on Mejia’s shirt was also type O blood. Jackson said fingernail clippings from Mejia also showed type O blood. Poole is blood type AB.
Jackson said Poole’s watch was checked for blood and they located traces of iron, but not blood inside the watch. Police also searched Poole’s car and found traces of blood inside the center console. Jackson testified that the blood found there was type O.
Under cross-examination Jackson said that 43% of the white population had type O blood. She also testified that no hairs found in Mejia’s car belonged to Poole.
A report from another forensic analyst with Michigan State Police was introduced. In a section of that report, officials said that blood on one of the pebbles found at the crime scene did not match Meija or Poole.
Bite mark testimony
Dr. Allan Warnick worked as forensic odontologist and consulted with several police departments, including Michigan State Police.
He told jurors that he had taken dozens of photos of the wound on Mejia’s arm, made a cast of the bitemark, and then made an impression of Poole’s teeth after his arrest. He said that everyone’s teeth are unique. He testified that the bite marks made on Mejia’s were made by Poole.
Under cross-examination, he acknowledged that skin is not a good medium for creating dental impressions and that any twisting or movement during the bite could create a distortion.
He also said that once someone dies their tissue shrinks around 1%. He said that forensic odontology was more subjective than fingerprint analysis. Warnick is linked to other wrongful convictions.
According to the Innocence Project, 26 people have been wrongly convicted based on bite mark evidence.
Poole testified at his own trial and said he did not kill Mejia. He also said he did not tell Cook that he killed a man. He said the first time he heard Mejia’s name was when he was arrested. He said he thought the police arrested him because Cook had taken a warrant against him for kicking her out of their house.
During closing arguments, Wilhelm accused Clayton of being the killer. He said the case was about lovers and scorn. He said the prosecution’s theory about the killing being a robbery gone bad didn’t hold up.
When Mejia was found dead he was still wearing a gold watch and his wallet was found inside the glove box of his car. Wilhelm said Cook made up the story about Poole’s confession.
“Three people in the bar would lie and convict an innocent man of a crime like this, just to solve this crime; to avenge their friend. Connie Cook is a monster who would make up a story to put Gilbert Poole away, when she knows he didn’t do it. So they all lied, she’s a monster, and Dr. Warnick is incompetent. That’s the defense,” Assistant District Attorney Charles Spiekerman said. “Dr. Warnick testified, and I won’t go through it again, that based on his experience, those teeth bit the victim. No other way around it. And then he went back to the basis for this type of testimony, the book where they did the study with all the identical twins, and they got the mathematicians to say what’s the possibility that somebody else has teeth exactly like that. And, if I recall, it was two and one half billion to one. That makes the lottery look like a sure thing. It was his teeth.”
Poole was convicted by a jury of first-degree murder on June 6, 1989. He was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
DNA evidence leads to exoneration
Poole filed several appeals over the years.
In 2005, he asked the court to test DNA evidence from the case. A series of rulings found that because the blood evidence had already excluded Poole as a contributor, further testing wasn’t needed.
In 2008, Poole filed a pro se petition for a writ of habeas corpus. By then, bitemark analysis had been widely discredited. There had been other successful appeals and dismissals linked to Warnick’s testimony, including the exonerations of Michael Cristini and Jeffrey Moldowan.
On Aug. 9, 2011, a judge recommended that the court deny Poole’s petition. She said other evidence connecting Poole to the murder was too strong.
“In short, while it might be reasonable for a juror to conclude that, stripped of Dr. Warnick’s testimony, the remaining evidence does not prove petitioner guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, that falls short of the actual innocence standard,” the judge said.
The Sixth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals rejected Poole’s appeal in 2013, and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear his case.
In 2015, the Michigan Supreme Court reversed a ruling from the Michigan Court of Appeals and said testing could proceed. It determined lower courts had been using the wrong standards. By now, Poole was being represented by the Cooley Law School Innocence Project at Western Michigan University.
Michigan State Police conducted DNA testing in 2016 on the bloody stones and on grass collected at the crime scene. Dr. Karl Reich determined Poole was “excluded as a contributor to all tested samples and there is evidence of an unknown contributor who is not the defendant or the victim.”
Marla Mitchell-Cichon of the Cooley Innocence Project then filed an application with the Michigan Attorney General’s Conviction Integrity Unit, which was created in 2019 and reviews wrongful conviction claims for cases outside of Detroit and Wayne County.
“This case serves as an example of the important work being done by our Conviction Integrity Unit,” said Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel. “When we established this team in 2019, we made a commitment to ensuring those convicted of state crimes are in fact guilty while also providing justice to those wrongfully imprisoned. I appreciate the tireless work the unit put in alongside the WMU-Cooley Innocence Project to reach this outcome for Mr. Poole.”
Poole walks free
The CIU and Cooley submitted a joint stipulation on May 26, 2021, asking Oakland County Circuit Court Judge Rae Lee Chabot to vacate Poole’s conviction and dismiss his charge.
Judge Rae Chabot approved the motion the same day, and a few hours later, Poole was released from Cotton Correctional Center in Jackson.
“On behalf of the state of Michigan, we are deeply sorry for your pain and for the years of your life that have been taken away from you. We can’t ever give it back,” Assistant Attorney General Robyn Frankel, the director of the Conviction Integrity Unit, said.
On June 15, 2021, Poole filed a claim for compensation from the state of Michigan. On July 20, 2021, he was awarded $1,597,577.
“I spent decades learning, reading, studying law, but none of that was working for me. It wasn’t until I surrendered to a higher power and God stepped in and sent me a band of angels to look past the rules and regulations and looked to see who was standing in the furnace. I was standing in the furnace. I didn’t belong here. I have to thank each and every one of you, without you this wasn’t possible,” Poole said.