Larry Smith had long dreamed of a life outside his Michigan prison walls, but recently it began to seem like a real possibility. It has been 26 years since Smith was convicted of first-degree murder at age 19 and sentenced to life in prison. But Smith has always maintained his innocence. In the last decade, corrupt practices used by the Detroit Police Department in the 1990s to secure murder convictions—such as beating or coercing confessions out of suspects or rewarding informants for fabricating testimony—began coming to light. The revelations have cast doubt on dozens of convictions out of the Wayne County district attorney’s office, including Smith’s.
Then COVID-19 hit. As of Tuesday, more than 3,000 Michigan prisoners across 18 facilities tested positive for the novel coronavirus, which causes COVID-19, and at least 59 had died. One of the first coronavirus casualties in the state’s prison system was Susan Farrell, who died on April 8. Farrell, 74, served over 30 years for allegedly killing her husband, who she said physically and sexually abused her. She filed for clemency in 2018. Governor Gretchen Whitmer has resisted calls to decarcerate the state’s prison system during the pandemic. In April, 60-year-old William Garrison died from COVID-19 at the Macomb Correctional Facility just 24 days before he was to be released. He had served 44 years in prison.
Some male prisoners who test positive but are then cleared as noncontagious are sent by the Michigan Department of Corrections to the Gus Harrison Correctional Facility. The 2,362-bed prison, where Smith is housed, is in Adrian, a small city about 70 miles southwest of Detroit. There, they are quarantined in a 120-bed “step-down unit” until after they test negative.
Within days of officials opening the step-down unit at Gus Harrison, the virus surfaced in the prison’s general population. Smith, who is asthmatic and immunocompromised, worries it was introduced into the general population by corrections officers traveling between the two prison wings and has filed a complaint to the prison’s warden about it. A spokesperson for the state Department of Corrections told The Appeal and Type Investigations that this was impossible, noting that the two staff members who tested positive had not come into contact with the step-down unit.
Smith’s frustration is amplified by the fact that there had been movement on his case. He’d been in regular contact with Valerie Newman, an assistant prosecutor at the Wayne County DA’s office and director of its conviction integrity unit (CIU). Since its inception in 2018, the nine-person unit has secured the release of at least 19 people from prison, either by proving a person’s innocence outright or forcing a new trial.
The case of Ramon Ward, one of the CIU’s most recent exonerees, bore similarities to Smith’s: there was little to no physical evidence, and neither admitted guilt; they were interviewed by Monica Childs, a Detroit homicide detective who has since been linked to dubious policing methods such as coercing statements out of suspects; and both were convicted based on testimony from jailhouse informants now known to have been part of a “snitch ring” used by the Detroit Police Department, some of whom received reduced sentences in exchange for their testimony.
Since March, the CIU has been able to move forward on four cases in which its investigations were complete. But Smith has heard little from the unit regarding his case. “When this pandimic [sic] started you were active in the process of granting my freedom,” Smith wrote to Newman in late March. “Please give me some hope, because at the rate of infection I am becoming hopeless.”
The CIU’s work, already slow, is now hobbled by the pandemic that is hitting particularly hard in Wayne County, whose residents account for nearly 40 percent of Michigan’s infections. Newman says about two dozen active investigations have been effectively paused—on top of a backlog of 700 cases the CIU plans to examine.
That means that even people like Smith, who might have a compelling chance of being freed, are stuck in prison, exposed to COVID-19 with little ability to protect themselves. Claudia Whitman, one of Smith’s longtime advocates and CEO of the National Capital Crime Assistance Network, says conviction integrity units often don’t have the resources to work quickly. Last year, the Wayne County CIU budget totaled a little less than $1 million. It helped release seven people in 2019, according to a March 31 report from the National Registry of Exonerations. By comparison, CIUs in Baltimore, Dallas, and Kings County (Brooklyn) were involved in five, four, and three. In other counties, CIUs have accomplished little or closed up shop. In early 2016, the New Orleans City Council declined to renew funding for the Conviction Integrity and Accuracy Project—a partnership between the Orleans Parish district attorney’s office and the Innocence Project New Orleans—even though New Orleans is known for prosecutorial misconduct and wrongful convictions.
“Unlike the state, which fights prisoners’ appeals at every turn, the Wayne County conviction integrity unit is actually looking for evidence of innocence so it can help people get released,” Whitman said. “But chronic underfunding means it cannot review all credible claims in a timely manner, leaving many to languish in prison during a pandemic.”
Smith’s case dates back to 1994, when he was convicted of murdering another man from his Detroit neighborhood. Years later, a jailhouse informant admitted in an affidavit that he was instructed by police to lie and say that Smith confessed to the murder while they were jailed together on the Detroit Police Department’s ninth floor. Childs, the homicide detective, interviewed Smith after his arrest and testified at trial that he made incriminating statements such as identifying clothing worn by the shooter.
Smith fought his conviction in multiple appeals, claiming that Childs had misrepresented what he told her. In 1997, the Michigan Court of Appeals denied his filing based, in part, on the court’s disagreement that Childs had “exerted psychological or physical coercion” on Smith. By 2007, Smith had exhausted all of his appeals in the state system and filed a writ of habeas corpus in federal court, which was also rejected.
A potential breakthrough came in 2013, when the jailhouse informant withdrew his testimony against Smith in an affidavit. Smith filed the informant’s affidavit and other materials that supported his innocence claim as newly discovered evidence, including an affidavit from a former Wayne County prosecutor who voiced concerns about the jailhouse informant ring. But a circuit court judge in Wayne County promptly denied the motion.
Though the Detroit Police Department has never acknowledged the existence of an informant ring, Childs described a “protocol” of homicide detectives lying to secure convictions in a whistleblower lawsuit she filed against the department in 1997. (The suit was eventually settled out of court.) But it took decades for independent investigators to sound the alarm over these convictions, including Smith’s.
Smith’s optimism about his case, however, turned to desperation in recent months as his fellow prisoners at Gus Harrison became sick. Outside of prison, some of his relatives contracted COVID-19. His daughter, born a few months before Smith was sentenced in 1994, contracted the disease and recovered, Smith said, but a nephew was also infected and has needed oxygen assistance to survive.
As the coronavirus spread unchecked in March and early April, Smith says, corrections officers were not consistently wearing the face masks that prisoners are getting paid 35 to 90 cents an hour to sew out of clothing material. The Department of Corrections approved an extra $2 per day in hazard pay for prisoners with jobs related to food service, laundry, prisoner assistance, and porter positions, though Smith does not receive that benefit as a reading and writing tutor for other prisoners.
Extra soap can only be purchased from the commissary at his prison, and Smith says that some officers taunt incarcerated people who fear contracting the virus. He also described inconsistent sanitation of common areas, such as staff not wiping down phones in the yard between prisoners’ use. He wears winter gloves and puts a sock on the receiver when he uses the phone. Smith’s complaint about unsanitary phones is listed as a grievance in a class action lawsuit filed against the Department of Corrections by prisoners at four of the hardest hit prisons.
Department of Corrections spokesperson Chris Gautz told The Appeal and Type Investigations that prisoners are taken in groups to use phones, which are sanitized between uses. Gautz denied that officers have taunted incarcerated people: “I do not believe any of our employees would say such a thing.” In addition, the Department of Corrections website says the state is ensuring “all prisoner areas and bathrooms have plentiful access to soap,” including five small bars every two weeks to each prisoner and more on request—though at least three prisoners told The Appeal and Type Investigations that they had limited access to soap through mid-April.
Four men incarcerated throughout the state echoed Smith’s complaints about the Department of Corrections’ handling of COVID-19. All the men are from Detroit and are now having their cases re-examined by the Wayne County CIU.
Bernard Howard, 44, is locked up on a life sentence at the Thumb Correctional Facility in the town of Lapeer. Like Smith, he was convicted as a teenager based on an alleged confession to Childs. The jailhouse informant at the center of his case was also involved in Ramon Ward’s case.
Howard said he suffers from the lung disease sarcoidosis, and though the prison was put on lockdown after an outbreak in mid-April, he has seen guards enter prisoners’ cells without masks or changing gloves to rummage through their belongings, including his own. On May 18, he got his test results for COVID-19 back: positive.
Interviewed in mid-April, Howard felt hopeful about his case. “I’m pretty sure I should be going home,” he wrote in an email. A month later, after testing positive, he was despondent, and reported problems with his breathing.
Lacino Hamilton, a third prisoner whose conviction hinged on discredited testimony from the same alleged informant ring, is on lockdown at the Macomb Correctional Facility, where 110 people have been infected and one person has died. The prison’s lockdown has lasted more than three months, and infected incarcerated people are confined in the gymnasium. Hamilton alleges that corrections officers hoard cleaning supplies, while prisoners who want extra soap have to purchase it from the commissary.
“I can get a couple bars from the state here on [sic] there, about the size of a SMALL bic lighter. But I use them to wash clothes, which is against the rules, but I’m not never sending clothes to the central laundry,” Hamilton wrote in an early April email message to The Appeal and Type Investigations. “They come back worst [sic] than when we send them.” At that time, he was awaiting test results from DNA that was collected for the first time as the Wayne County CIU re-examines his case.
Meanwhile, Smith said, everyone in the prison is at risk. “Some of these men are guilty, others innocent, but when is enough enough?” Smith wrote in an email. “This is an opportunity to use taxpayers dollars and resources more effectively and giving a few good men a second chance at being law-abiding returning citizens.”
Even as COVID-19 spreads through the prison system in Michigan, which has one of the country’s highest infection rates, the vast majority of its 38,000 prisoners cannot be released without an order from Governor Whitmer. In response to a plea from advocates, Whitmer said, “There’s nothing I can do right now to increase that number in a safe way.”
Only about 5,000 prisoners are parole-eligible, in large part because the state’s truth-in-sentencing law makes anyone who has not served their minimum sentence ineligible. In April, 796 people were paroled.
Detroit is among the cities hardest hit by COVID-19—as of Wednesday more than 10,500 people have been infected and nearly 1,300 have died—and Newman said that the CIU’s efforts to review cases have been hampered by the disease’s spread. She said that getting access to older evidence stockpiles from Detroit police has been made more difficult with more than 1,000 officers under quarantine at some point during the pandemic (a pressure that comes atop longstanding difficulties for the police department in getting access to older files). CIU investigators can’t visit witnesses in their homes to take statements, an in-person practice that traditionally yields better results than phone calls.
“We’re working the cases up to the point where we say alright, when we get back, and we can have access to things, these are the next steps we need to take. But in the meantime, we’ve done everything else we can to work the case up, as best we can with the restrictions that we’re all under,” Newman says.
The Innocence Project estimates conservatively that there are 20,000 factually innocent people in prison, while a University of Pennsylvania study projects there are roughly 100,000. Only 2,614 have been exonerated since 1989, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. The criminal legal system always works slowly, advocates say, and COVID-19 has further slowed the process for everything from parole to exonerations.
The health risks are heightened even for those who don’t contract the disease. At the Earnest C. Brooks Correctional Facility in Muskegon Heights, Rodgereck Herbert’s treatments for a skin rash that he suspects are symptoms of scabies were stopped after non-emergency visits were postponed in March. He also has a case under review by the Wayne County CIU.
“It would truly suck if I never got a chance at vindication due to the coronavirus,” he wrote in an email message to The Appeal and Type Investigations, “because I have no belief in the departments ability to contain this in such a setting.”
Kenneth Nixon, another Detroit native with a case being examined by the CIU, says that one night in early April a corrections officer at the Michigan Reformatory prison was aggressive with him when he asked the corrections officer to put his mask on.
“He responded with ‘Get the fuck away from the desk and go back to your bunk,’” Nixon wrote in an email. “As I complied and retreated to my bunk all I could think about was ‘I wish the public could see the hypocrisy that goes on behind these walls.’”