DETROIT – Authorities are dropping a murder conviction against a man who is serving a life sentence for a fire that killed five children in suburban Detroit after critical evidence that cast doubt on the case was never shared with the defense before the 2006 trial, a prosecutor said Tuesday.
The evidence includes a video interview with a survivor who told police that Juwan Deering didn't set the fire, Oakland County prosecutor Karen McDonald said.
Deering didn't get a fair trial, said McDonald, adding: “This is a dark day for this office.”
Deering, now 50, was convicted of murder in a 2000 house fire in Royal Oak Township. Authorities at the time said the fire was revenge for drug debts, though Deering repeatedly declared his innocence. No one could identify him as being at the property.
Indeed, McDonald said her staff uncovered a video of a police interview with a 13-year-old fire survivor who had looked at a photo lineup of possible suspects in 2000.
“He identifies a person named Juwan in the lineup, and he says that Juwan didn’t do it,” said McDonald, a former judge who was elected last fall.
“We have an ethical obligation to turn over all the evidence ... even if it hurts our case,” she said. “That didn’t happen here. There was critical information that was not turned over to the defense and the jury never heard.”
McDonald also said jurors and Deering’s trial lawyer were never told that jail informants won substantial benefits for their testimony against him and in other cases. The prosecutor announced that development in May.
McDonald said she will join a new request by Deering’s attorney to have a judge throw out the murder conviction. She declined to say whether the case should be dismissed entirely.
“The Michigan State Police is investigating this right now. I’m not prepared to take a position,” McDonald said.
But Deering's attorney believes a full dismissal would be the best step.
“There's not enough evidence to retry Mr. Deering. The simple reason is he didn’t commit the crime,” said Imran Syed of the Innocence Clinic at University of Michigan law school. “He feels a deep vindication. He has known for 15 years that there was a process against him and no one believed him.”
Syed and law students earlier had been trying to get a new trial for Deering, arguing that the fire analysis was based on “junk science,” but those requests were unsuccessful in Michigan’s appellate courts.
Greg Townsend was the assistant prosecutor who took Deering to trial in 2006. He subsequently became a Michigan assistant attorney general and was part of the team handling an alleged kidnapping plot against Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. He was reassigned last spring when the Deering case made headlines again and retired in July.
Lawyers in the warrants branch of the prosecutor's office had declined three times to charge Deering before Townsend acted on his own, McDonald said.
She said the parents of the children who died in the fire were told about the new twist in the case.
The “injustice doesn’t just impact Juwan Deering. ... They have lived with this tragedy for two decades, and I can’t imagine the pain of having to relive it again and again,” McDonald said.
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