The night 18-year-old Bernard Howard was hauled into Detroit police headquarters he was unequivocal: he knew nothing. Police had heard a man nicknamed Snoop—something Howard’s friend on the east side called him—might’ve been involved in a triple homicide, but Howard was clear: he didn’t know a thing. So he was released. Three days later, when officers brought him downtown again, they’d changed their tune. He was being held overnight for murder.
That was July 1994. At the time Howard was a young man with a family to take care of and a prospective job at a General Motors plant in the works.
But instead of working on a car production line he has been imprisoned ever since, fighting a murder conviction that he maintains was manufactured by Detroit police and an enterprising jailhouse informant.
More than that, Howard and defense attorneys in similar cases say that he wasn’t alone in suffering his fate; that police and this informant led prosecutors astray and potentially landed dozens of innocent Detroit men behind bars—or secured convictions that would not have happened otherwise.
“The whole case was fabricated against me from inside 1300 [Detroit police headquarters],” Howard told me in an interview at the Michigan state prison he has resided in for years. “Nothing came from the crime scene.”
Detroit has a history rankled by violence, and 1994 was no exception. There were 541 homicides that year in a city with a million people—New York City’s murder rate was less than half that.
So by then, the directive from City Hall to homicide detectives was crystallized: close cases, at all costs.
For Howard, there was a sinister twist to achieving that goal. Rather than chase down every lead possible, Howard and several prisoners say, Detroit police relied on a few jailhouse informants to close cases for them.
That wasn’t clear to Howard when police dragged him into a downtown precinct in the early hours of July 20, 1994. Two detectives placed him in an interrogation room on the fifth floor around 1:30 a.m., handcuffed him to a chair, read him his rights, and bombarded him with questions.
The interrogation dragged on for hours. Officers kept leaving and coming back, convinced Howard had a shred of knowledge about what transpired. Howard tried to remain calm. But in the face of two officers shouting him down about what life in prison would be like, he soon found himself cracking at the seams.
“I told them I had nothing to do with it, and I know nothing about it,” Howard said at the Muskegon Correctional Facility in west Michigan. Now 41, Howard—a tall, lanky man with a bald head and a neatly-trimmed goatee—speaks almost imperceptibly, fidgeting with a stack of documents he racked up over time for a murder case he maintains he had no part in.
After hours of questioning, Howard found himself on the department’s ninth floor, where inmates were held upon being booked. There, he briefly met a fellow prisoner named Joe Twilley. Though Howard describes their interaction as fleeting, Twilley spun a different narrative to detectives. Howard, Twilley claimed, had admitted to his involvement in the murders.
When Twilley took the stand to testify during a preliminary hearing in the case, Howard was stunned to find a man he’d met in passing was pinning him to a grisly killing.
But just as Howard’s trial was set to begin in February 1995, prosecutors were airing similar concerns, describing in one memo an apparent ongoing scheme with Detroit police in which jailhouse informants lie “about overhearing confessions” to “obtain police favors.” One name to be aware of? Joe Twilley.
The thing is, Howard never knew that prosecutors had concerns about the police department’s use of informants—not until long after his conviction.
Howard’s story makes for a complex tale, one that the Detroit police department and Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office, which oversees the city, declined to address directly when asked for comment.
“The use of informants can raise many potential issues and so they are always closely scrutinized,” Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy told me in an emailed statement. “Whenever an informant comes forward, first and foremost we must establish whether they are credible, reliable, and if the information can be independently corroborated. If we are not able to do so, the information cannot be used.”
Asked if its policy toward jailhouse informants has changed since the 1990s, a spokesperson for Worthy pointed out that the prosecutor’s office was described, in memos I obtained through court records about the alleged informants, as being “clearly” against the use of jailhouse informants who received any kind of special consideration by Detroit police.
“It is also noted in the memos that the police did not disclose this [special consideration] to prosecutors at the time,” the spokesperson said.
Over the last two decades, Howard has amassed an arsenal of documents that revealed Twilley’s name has popped up in several murder cases. Some of the convicts say they never met Twilley, while others, like Howard, say they crossed paths, but their interactions were wholly inoffensive.
Howard’s case is further complicated because, after relentless questioning by police, he gave a confession—one he maintains was false and coerced.
That alone could impugn Howard’s credibility—indeed, judges have repeatedly declined to accept an appeal because of his statement—but an immense amount of research in recent years has highlighted the phenomenon of false confessions.
For example, one in four people wrongfully convicted and later exonerated by DNA evidence made a false confession, according to The Innocence Project, a non-profit firm that reviews potential wrongful conviction cases. (In fact, the officer who obtained his confession, Monica Childs, later sued the city as a whistleblower by saying the homicide division had a long-held practice of coercing statements out of suspects, just as Howard said she had with him. The case was eventually settled.)
But in Howard’s court filings, it’s the alleged over-reliance of jailhouse informants by Detroit police that stands out. After coming across Howard’s case, I filed several Freedom Of Information Act requests and reviewed the documents he filed in his appeal. What emerged was a scheme that—if true—is paralleled only by the Los Angeles Rampart scandal in the 1990s, as well as an ongoing situation in Orange County, which has been roiled in recent years by a informant problem of its own.
That’s because Howard’s not alone. There are at least five pending appeals by convicts in Detroit who say they’re spending life in prison almost entirely because of Twilley and other informants.
“They became police agents, willing to lie, because they didn’t care,” said one of the informants, Jonathan Hewitt-El, of Twilley and others linked to the alleged scheme. Hewitt-El is linked to at least three cases in the 1990s but documents show he refused to testify at those trials, instead asserting his Fifth Amendment rights and saying, “it was all a set up.”
The alleged scheme, described in hundreds of pages of documents and court files, worked by Detroit police rampantly misusing jailhouse informants, from having them manufacture testimony wholesale with the help and at the behest of homicide cops, to knowingly committing perjury in multiple murder cases.
After jailhouse informants allegedly fabricated testimony to tie suspects to murders, the records indicate, prosecutors were able to bolster cases light on evidence with the newfound testimony, oftentimes securing convictions as they did in Howard’s case.
In exchange for their cooperation, two of the informants have said, homicide investigators worked to alter their sentences. And, they added, during their incarceration on the ninth floor, they received whatever they wanted, be it sex, drugs, or food.
Records and interviews suggest dozens of more cases—at least 33 and as many as 100—were filed during the mid-1990s in Detroit in part due to informant testimony. I identified a dozen cases linked just to Twilley, Hewitt-El and two other informants; of those, five defendants received life sentences and are still fighting their convictions.
In 1994, Howard was 18, enjoying the life of a young man on Detroit’s east side. He played basketball, listened to R&B, and, without access to a vehicle, enjoyed carrying his young son on his shoulders wherever they went. At the time, he worked as a janitor at his probation officer’s facility after he received a concealed weapon conviction as a juvenile.
Despite this run-in with the law, he had hopes of going to work at a GM plant like some in his family and many in Detroit had done; a good job that put food on the table. He had an uncle and a stepfather who were working to get him a position there, he said.
On July 16 that year, court records show he was dropped off at his friend Jameel Spencer’s house, where a group of friends met to hang throughout the night. They walked two houses down to the home of Tyiesha Washington.
From there, until about 2 a.m., it was a typical night of friends drinking and playing cards. According to Spencer’s testimony, he left an hour later; Howard stayed at the house with Washington. (The account was later corroborated by Washington, who also said in an affidavit that she was never contacted by Howard’s attorney to testify at trial.)
When dawn broke, Howard said he walked back to Spencer’s house and fell asleep. In the morning, Spencer mentioned a triple murder that happened across town while they were playing cards.
According to Howard, Spencer mentioned one of the victim’s names, Marcus Averitte, and asked, “Isn’t that a guy you’ve known forever?”
“[Averitte] grew up with my family, so he knew me when I was a little boy,” Howard said.
According to police, the triple murder that Howard is imprisoned for played out like this: Just after 1 a.m., the aunt of Averitte’s girlfriend ReShay Winston stopped by Averitte’s house to give her a message from her grandmother. When she arrived, three men were on the porch. She couldn’t make out the face of who said it, but the aunt later told police that she believed a man named Kenneth McMullen said her Winston was inside.
Minutes later, after delivering the message, the aunt left.
It’s then prosecutors say the men on the porch entered the home and fatally shot Averitte, Winston and a roommate. When officers arrived later, they found the home—which police said was a drug den at the time—trashed, along with Winston’s two-year-old son unharmed.
The following day, Howard willingly went down to the police station for an interview. Detectives were apparently told a guy known as “Snoop” might know something about the murders. That’s what Averitte called Howard, and why police reached out.
But it was an innocuous conversation. An officer asked Howard what he knew about the shooting. Nothing, Howard said; he didn’t hear about it until Spencer told him earlier in the day. The officer asked if his nickname was “Snoop.” Only to Averitte, Howard said, “Everybody else calls me Bernard.”
The officer continued: Did he know a guy named Kenneth McMullen?
Howard previously met McMullen through Averitte and often saw him at the house. According to his statement, Howard said McMullen sold drugs for Averitte. Then the interview ended.
It’s then that police began to develop a narrative wholly divergent of Howard’s initial take on what happened. That’s why, three days later, Howard found himself being questioned again.
For eight hours, two homicide detectives drilled him about the case. But Howard adamantly maintained he knew nothing. Around 9:45 a.m, on July 20, a separate officer, Monica Childs, entered the room. With her, she brought a calmer demeanor.
“I’m in tears,” Howard told me. “I’m telling her I didn’t do anything.”
According to Howard, Childs explained that McMullen had given police a statement, saying he and a friend, Ladon Salisbury, concocted a scheme with Howard to rob Averitte. The three went over and took $700 and a pound of marijuana from a safe, according to McMullen’s statement.
McMullen claimed that while he stood guard, Howard fatally shot Averitte’s roommate with a sawed-off shotgun. Salisbury killed the other two—Averitte and his girlfriend ReShay Winston. A few minutes later, they packed a van full of belongings from the house and drove off.
Howard was frozen. McMullen knew he owned a sawed-off shotgun, he told me, so he felt cornered when Childs said the statement had placed him at the scene. (McMullen, at trial, said his statement was coerced.)
So, Howard told me, Childs offered a solution: Sign a statement of your own, and you’ll be released. If he didn’t, the officer said, McMullen will lie and put the case on him. Howard said that he went through details proffered by Childs, who wrote out the statement, which he signed without reading it over.
Childs told Howard his mother was outside waiting for him. After hours of relentless questioning, he felt drained. He didn’t think twice about it.
“I felt that was the only option I had to get out of there,” he said.
What Howard—who had a ninth grade education and says he was functionally illiterate at the time—didn’t fully grasp was the enormity of the situation: he had just signed a confession admitting his involvement in the triple-murder.
Childs immediately reversed course, Howard said. Instead of being released, Howard said she told him that he needed to be held overnight at the police department’s headquarters in downtown Detroit. (Multiple attempts to reach Childs were unsuccessful.)
“I didn’t know nothing,” he told me. “I didn’t even know the amount of trouble I was in.” Despite that concealed weapon conviction as a juvenile, Howard said that it didn’t provide any insight into the situation he now found himself in. “I went straight to the juvenile [court], and then I went to boot camp,” back then, he said. Nothing like this before.
And yet several inconsistencies exist in the statement Howard signed.
Unlike McMullen’s version of events that Child cited, in this statement, Howard said he was the lookout, while McMullen and Salisbury fired the fatal shots. What’s more, Howard’s statement describes the scenario as having taken place in the early hours of Saturday, July 17, not Friday, July 16.
“Who would forget the night they were involved in a triple murder within two days?” Howard said. “That’s like tragic... that’s not something you just forget or mistake.”
Police didn’t chase down every lead, either, documents show. Howard’s nickname “Snoop” led police to initially question him, but witnesses and Howard said they told detectives about another guy in the neighborhood who also went by Snoop and happened to be dating one of the victims, ReShay Winston, just months before the shooting.
“They went to school together,” Winston’s aunt Darmetia Bolden, said at trial, clarifying she wasn’t talking about Howard.
But an investigator in the case testified at Howard’s trial that police didn’t interview anyone else who went by Snoop. Only Howard.
Housed on the ninth floor in a facility that could hold about 60 prisoners, Howard came across Joe Twilley, an inmate afforded extra privileges by the detention officers who was serving a sentence while awaiting to testify as a witness in an arson case. As a “trustee,” a common role for some inmates prisons and jails, Twilley was granted extra familial visits, a TV in his cell, and the ability to move about the night floor freely.
For Twilley, the informant role wasn’t unusual.
An investigator testified that Twilley assisted Detroit police in more than 20 homicides with first-hand knowledge obtained from inmates.
In return, Twilley was rewarded for his help: a second-degree murder sentence that he had been incarcerated for since 1988 was summarily reduced in 1994.
At the time, court records show, defense attorneys for murder suspects charged as a result of Twilley’s statements took note of the peculiar consistency in his narrative: Individuals he’d just met suddenly—and inexplicably—would allegedly make confessions to him about committing violent crimes, again and again. Twilley said in court that he heard 40 to 50 confessions during his stay on the ninth floor. (Efforts to reach Twilley for comment were unsuccessful.)
Despite being warned by defense attorneys about the questionable testimony of the informants, records show the Wayne County prosecutor’s office continued to pursue murder cases that turned primarily on testimony from jailhouse informants. Just a week before Howard’s trial began, for example, a top official in the prosecutor’s office warned in a March 1995 memo that the situation “could cause tremendous problems” and lead to “prompt reversal” of cases in which police struck a deal with an informant without telling a prosecutor.
Four sources with inside knowledge of the police department and the prosecutor’s office at the time said the concern about the use of informants by Detroit police was prevalent in both organizations. Two sources with knowledge of the police department said Twilley’s months-long presence on the ninth floor raised concern internally about the use of jailhouse informants, with one source saying it prompted an internal investigation.
A “full and complete” report was completed, the source said, and “I guarantee you, it got buried.”
(In response to several Freedom of Information Act requests, the city of Detroit said that records showing what cases Twilley was involved with is exempt from disclosure. The city quoted me $53,000 to even search for a copy of the report.)
Twilley had a peculiar relationship with top Detroit homicide personnel as well. Records show a lieutenant in the homicide division at the time, Bill Rice, personally went to the judge who oversaw Twilley’s murder case and asked for his sentence to be reduced—a highly irregular move. The judge complied and resentenced Twilley before ordering the hearing suppressed. Rice himself was sentenced in 2014 for perjury after prosecutors said he gave false testimony in a hearing for the case of Davontae Sanford, a teenager from Detroit who was charged and later exonerated in a quadruple murder.
The concerns over Detroit’s use of jailhouse informants also went all the way up to the county prosecutor at the time, John O’Hair. In a September 1995 letter, a defense attorney warned O’Hair about the apparent scheme. The letter described one particular murder case and conveyed to the prosecutor that an informant—Jonathan Hewitt-El—had recanted his testimony in more than four cases and said he lied at the behest of a homicide personnel.
In an interview, O’Hair told me he doesn’t recall the letter. He said that if an informant simply overhears a confession and then passes it along to police, there’s not a “real problem there.” But, he continued, the practice of directing informants to speak to inmates and glean whatever information they can, or to manufacture wholly fabricated testimony, would be overtly problematic.
But with the number of convicted murderers potentially implicated as a result of the alleged informant scheme, O’Hair said what’s described is cause for alarm.
“It’s a terrible situation,” O’Hair said, “if all of this is true.”
Twilley was convicted of second-degree murder in 1988. But by the time Howard was detained in July 1994, he had lived in the lockup on the ninth floor for several months. Twilley said in court that he had been receiving threats in the state prison where he’d been housed for agreeing to testify as a witness in an arson case.
“Listen man,” Howard said Twilley told him after he approached his cell. “These police are setting you up.” The trustee offered him a cigarette and a sympathetic ear.
“Setting me up?” Howard responded. Twilley told him: They’re gonna put these murders on you.
“I just sat on the bench, smoked a cigarette, and just dropped my head,” Howard said.
That was, according to Howard, his only interaction with Twilley.
But within weeks, Howard learned that was all police needed to pin the triple-murder on him, along with the confession he maintains was coerced.
Whether it was because of this or not, Twilley soon received good news. Within two weeks, records show, after speaking with Howard, Twilley’s second-degree murder sentence was reduced.
At Howard’s preliminary examination the following month, Twilley testified that Howard admitted his role in the triple-murder and robbery in a conversation the two men had. Prosecutors had no physical evidence of identification linking Howard to the crime.
When a trial jury convened to deliberate Howard’s fate in March 1995, Twilley’s testimony bolstered Howard’s confession, questionable as it was. Howard was convicted on three counts of first-degree murder, three counts of armed robbery and a felony firearms charge.
In a series of interviews in recent months by phone and in-person at the west Michigan state prison where he lives, Howard reflected on what he said was a corrupt—yet, at its core, simple—practice that allowed police to implicate men in Detroit for murder.
“You can do this to 100 people,” he said, “if this all it take to put a person in prison.”
Detective Rice first met Twilley in the late 1980s, when he was on trial for that second-degree murder. Twilley was sentenced to 25 years maximum in prison. Under Michigan law, he was required to serve a minimum of 12 years before becoming eligible for parole.
But Twilley and Rice would meet again. Just over five years later, in the fall of 1993, Detroit police took authority of Twilley’s incarceration. Like other inmates, Detroit homicide personnel housed him in the ninth floor lockup. A month after he was transferred, court records show, he was designated a trustee.
Within six months, Twilley testified in numerous cases, inmates started opening up to him. There was Walter Givans, a Detroit man who served 15 years for second degree murder based on testimony largely delivered by Twilley. Ramon Ward received a life sentence after allegedly confessing to Twilley his role in a double murder.
And in Howard’s case, Twilley’s testimony aided prosecutors in building a case that roped in two co-defendants, Kenneth McMullen and Ladon Salisbury.
In July 1994, only one week after Howard was arrested, Twilley’s attorney filed a new motion to reduce his murder sentence, claiming his plea to the murder charge was not given freely and voluntarily.
In a letter from prosecutor Rosemary Gordon to John Shamo, the judge in Twilley’s case, Gordon suggested a hearing should be held. “Based upon the facts,” she wrote, “I believe [it] may be in everyone’s best interest.”
Except nothing in the hearing pertained to Twilley’s plea. Oddly, when the hearing began, Shamo noted the sensitivity of the situation and sealed a transcript of what transpired.
“This hearing is going on in chambers,” Shamo said. “It’s a suppressed hearing. I don’t want this transcript released to anybody.”
The hearing, later uncovered in an appeal of a case linked to Twilley, focused on the informant’s extensive cooperation with police. Shamo noted that he held a conversation about resentencing Twilley, in June 1994, with a member of the prosecutor’s office who later became Michigan’s attorney general, Mike Cox, as well as Detroit homicide detectives Rice and Dale Collins.
At the hearing, Collins said Twilley had been an immense help to homicide detectives.
“Defendant Joe Twilley has assisted the Detroit Police Department homicide section on a number of homicides in the City of Detroit,” Collins testified. “And he has always cooperated in basically anything that we wanted him to do.”
Judge Shamo said he believed, based on the testimony, that he should reduce Twilley’s sentence by a few years “to save the gentleman’s life.”
“[O]ne of the factors is how well he’s done within the prison system ... what he has done to redeem himself, and to cooperate with law enforcement,” he said toward the end of the hearing.
With that, Shamo ordered Twilley released.
Documents show the decision to push for Twilley’s reduction in sentence wasn’t sparked by prosecutors at all, but Collins and Rice.
In a memo dated February 8, 1995 and first reported on by Truth-Out, Wayne County deputy chief prosecutor Richard Agacinski said he was contacted by several defense attorneys about “the practice of some police investigators to place prisoners on the ninth floor of 1300 Beaubien [the prisoner lock-up] in the expectation that they will overhear confessions of other suspects and testify to these jailhouse confessions in court.”
Three problems could arise from this arrangement, Agacinski noted. If “snitches” initiate the conversation with prisoners, it would violate their Miranda rights; if detectives promise leniency, it would violate the prosecutor’s office policy, as it is them who are to determine sentencing and charging; and, he said he had been told that some of the informants were knowingly lying about overhearing confessions and fabricating admissions to “obtain police favors or obtain the deals promised.”
In particular, Agacinski noted, one defense attorney, Bob Slameka, introduced him to two informants “who were kept on as police prisoners on the ninth floor, and obtained confessions in several cases that I am aware of.” One of the informants was Joe Twilley.
Agacinski went on, saying that “Dale Collins and Bill Rice of DPD homicide asked us to have Mr. Twilley’s sentence on a murder conviction reduced. We wouldn’t.” So the pair bypassed the prosecutor’s office and went to Judge Shamo themselves.
O’Hair, the chief prosecutor at the time, said it would be highly unusual for police officers to directly approach a judge about reducing a sentence.
“The prosecutor’s the ones that’s representing the people,” he told me. “It’s not the police department.”
Rosemary Gordon, the prosecutor at Twilley’s re-sentencing, recalled little about the case, as she was only asked to stand in for the motion. But she remembered Twilley as an alleged “snitch.”
(Slameka, who lost his bar license after pleading guilty to breaking and entering into his ex-girlfriend’s home, didn’t respond to numerous requests for comment. Reached by phone, Shamo’s wife said the now-retired judge suffers from dementia and would have no recollection of the case. Cox didn’t respond to requests for comment. A series of questions was sent to the Wayne County Medical Examiner’s Office, where Collins is now employed, but a response wasn’t received.)
Three weeks after Agacinski expressed his concerns in writing, Timothy Baughman, the head of the Wayne County prosecutor’s appeals division, followed up in a separate—previously unreported—memo on March 1, 1995. He wrote that the situation described by Agacinski, “if true, could cause tremendous problems, not the least of which the police have no authority to make ‘deals’ with prisoners in exchange for them acting as ‘listening posts.’” He added any conviction would be subject to prompt reversal.” (Baughman couldn’t recall details of the memo when reached I reached him last fall by phone.)
Indeed, in the case involving Ramon Ward, which turned almost entirely on Twilley’s testimony, disclosure of the informant’s sentence reduction became relevant.
In response to a 2001 motion by Ward to reduce his life sentence for murder, a research clerk wrote to the judge overseeing his case that Twilley “had received tremendous benefit from having testified against defendants and/or acting as an agent of the police.”
In failing to disclose his reduced sentence result during his testimony, the clerk wrote, “Twilley had perjured himself in defendant’s trial.”
Despite the clerk’s insistence that Ward’s motion was legitimate, the judge denied his request without issuing an opinion.
That scenario seemed to realize fears expressed by Baughman years prior, in his 1994 memo.
At the conclusion of the March 1 memo, Baughman wrote: “Besides discussion of the matter with the police department, I would suggest in the meantime that any case which depends on a jailhouse statement made to a fellow inmate be very carefully scrutinized.”
One week later, on March 8, 1994, Joe Twilley took the stand in the case against Bernard Howard.
Within four years of his release in 1998, Twilley was arrested in California on drug charges. The case was later dismissed. The now-56-year-old has been in and out of the prison, and as recently as spring 2015 was charged in Detroit for drug possession. He has yet to be arraigned on those charges.
Two sources with knowledge of the police department who spoke on condition of anonymity said homicide detective Rice caused considerable problems internally for holding Twilley on the ninth floor for almost a year, a practice the U.S. justice department later ordered the Detroit police to address.
One source said Twilley’s testimony—in a case with similar circumstances to Howard’s—sparked an internal investigation. During his stay, the source said, homicide detectives routinely checked Twilley out of the ninth floor to play basketball, or, even more unusually, take him out to dinner.
The source described how Twilley would be utilized by homicide cops in a hypothetical scenario in which three suspects were being held for a murder. Detectives would put the suspects on the ninth floor, and then tell Twilley to discuss with them “what’s going on” in their case and to “let us know what they’re saying.”
“So by the time they bring these three guys down to interrogate them, they kind of already know who did what… and they end up getting confessions out of these guys,” the source said.
“It’s inherently illegal,” the source continued. “When you tell him go find out this information, if he sits there and listens and these guys are just talking in front of him, that’s one thing. But if he goes up there and starts targeting them… he’s acting as a police agent and Miranda would attach. And that’s police investigations 101.”
Rice, who was recently released from prison after serving a 2-20 year sentence for perjury, declined to comment.
The homicide division’s efforts to secure confessions was a central issue in a whistleblower lawsuit later filed in 1997 by detective Childs, the one who allegedly coerced Howard’s initial admission to the triple murder.
In the suit, Childs said she was being pressured by a superior to lie in sworn testimony about statements given by alleged murder suspects.
The city maintained a practice and custom of “instituting and maintaining a de facto policy whereby officers are forced to perjure themselves in order to obtain convictions of criminal defendants,” the lawsuit said. That superior—who denied the allegations, according to reports—didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.
But not only did Childs admit to lying about the statements of murder suspects, she’s also linked to several cases involving the alleged misuse of informants by Detroit police.
One alleged jailhouse informant, Edward Allen, claimed Detroit police filed over 100 murder cases as a result of testimony from jailhouse informants. In an interview with a private investigator, Allen said that, unlike jail and non-police witnesses on the ninth floor, informants—like Twilley—received preferential treatment that even trustees would not normally expect.
“Allen received hot food and drugs from the outside often while on the ninth floor,” the investigator wrote in a summary of a January 2013 interview with the informant. “Allen did drugs and sold them while working as a police witness. Police officers would arrange for police witnesses to invite guests to the police station and to have sex in the witness rooms located on the lower floors of the police department.”
The affidavit continues, “The police would also supply police witnesses with the discovery packets and allow them to read up on the case so that eventually testimony would match the government’s allegations.”
Then-prosecutor O’Hair was told by a defense attorney in a September 1995 letter about Jonathan Hewitt-El, a witness in as many as four murder cases. O’Hair said he had no recollection of the letter or the so-called “snitch” memos from his deputies.
“If they were sent to me I definitely would have acted on them,” he told me. Standard operating procedure would’ve called for communication about the issue with the head of Detroit’s homicide division, O’Hair added, but it’s possible nothing was put in writing beyond his deputies’ memos.
In 2010, Howard had a breakthrough in how to approach challenging his case. Time and again, he watched other inmates, guys he grew close with over time, exit prison after serving their sentence.
“It gave me hope and inspiration, seeing, if they can go home, I know I can go home, because I didn’t do anything,” he said. A jailhouse lawyer encouraged him to start learning the law and file a new appeal. From there, inconsistencies Howard never saw before began to emerge.
It’s a fight he’s waged almost entirely on his own. With no source of income, he has been left to act as his own attorney. He said the state permits inmates to visit the law library two days a week, an hour each time. He used to run every day, but a lung disease inhibited him from staying active. Nowadays, he keeps his nose pressed to case law, legal opinions, and reads on. When he was 14, Howard said his father died; he went over to his house and found he had been shot and stabbed to death. In 1999, his mother died. In 2008, his stepfather followed.
“I didn’t really know who my father was in my life, as I was young, and I had swore that I would always be a part of my children’s life,” he said. “So for me to get caught up in this type of situation it went against everything I was trying to accomplish as far as being a part of my kid’s life.”
Last month, in March of 2017, a federal judge rejected Howard’s appeal for a new hearing. The judge agreed that Howard arguably had “impeachment evidence” for Twilley’s testimony that would’ve been favorable to his defense at trial—if he had been aware of it at the time.
But, “While such information, if admissible, would have served as impeachment material, it would not have affected the outcome at trial,” the judge, George Caram Steeh, ruled in his opinion last month. Steeh said Howard’s confession was more than enough proof to secure his conviction.
Howard said he’s planning on filing a renewed motion in state court, armed with new evidence he recently obtained. He said his efforts to study the law, and the sight of other inmates leaving prison and returning to life outside, keep him optimistic.
“It’s always good to see somebody go home,” he said. “It gives you hope, thinking one day it could be you.”
Ryan Felton covered criminal justice in the Midwest for The Guardian and the alt-weekly Detroit Metro Times before coming to Jalopnik.