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Criminal Justice & Legal System

Detroit man exonerated after serving 15 years on wrongful convictions

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State Appellate Defender's Office
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via Twitter
Terance Calhoun (second from right), with members of his defense team from the State Appellate Defender's Office, after his release from prison Wednesday.

A Wayne County judge on Wednesday ordered Terance Calhoun freed from prison after 15 years.

Calhoun had been serving time for a sexual assault and attempted sexual assault of two teenage girls in Detroit in 2006. He pleaded no contest to criminal sexual conduct and other charges related to the assaults in 2007 and was sentenced to a minimum of 17 years.

That same year, investigators found DNA found in a condom near the scene of the one of the assaults did not belong to Calhoun. But that DNA evidence wasn’t turned over to Calhoun’s defense team until 2019.

Valerie Newman, who heads the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Conviction Integrity Unit, said the entirety of Calhoun’s case is troubling. Not only did the 2007 DNA match exclude Calhoun, but it also pointed to a now-incarcerated man who went on to commit more sexual assaults.

“It highlights the fact that when the police get it wrong and we lock up the wrong person, it leaves the true perpetrator on the street free and clear to continue to commit more crimes,” said Newman.

Newman also noted that one victim described her assailant as having braids and a puzzle tattoo, neither of which Calhoun has. But earlier this year, a law enforcement database search turned up a DNA match to the assailant — a man who has braids and a puzzle tattoo.

Calhoun’s exoneration is “about the myriad of things that went wrong, that caused the wrongful conviction of an innocent person,” Newman said. “There's so many things that happened in this case that are troubling. And while this is ostensibly a DNA exclusion case, there is a lot more going on here that supports Mr. Calhoun's innocence than just the exclusion from a condom. There were so many things that were missed along the way in terms of this investigation.”

Calhoun was set to be exonerated a hearing in Wayne County Circuit Court last week, but it was delayed a week after Judge Kelly Ramsey told the court that Detroit police officer Robert Kane, who had been involved in Calhoun’s original conviction, approached her and attempted to influence her decision to vacate Calhoun’s convictions. Kane’s actions were quickly condemned by Newman, Calhoun’s attorneys, and the Detroit Police Department, who said Kane had violated protocol by approaching the judge.

Newman said she reviewed the information Kane had turned over to Ramsey, which was simply an envelope containing Calhoun’s case file. However, Newman noted that the file did not contain the 2007 lab report ruling out Calhoun’s DNA on the condom.

That drew a sharp rebuke from Calhoun’s lawyers. “In my opinion, there is a cloud over this investigation,” said Michael Mittelstat, an attorney with the State Appellate Denfeder’s Office and a member of Calhoun’s defense team. “And what Mr. Kane did last week was more befitting of a vigilante than that of a public servant.”

Mittelstat also noted that Calhoun’s case contains many of these flags we see often with wrongful convictions and in exoneration cases” — including witness misidentification, and a false confession from a defendant who was determined to be “cognitively impaired” but competent to stand trial.

“I would also say that it is very concerning that DNA evidence that excluded Mr. Calhoun did not make it into the defense's hands [until 2019],” Mittelstat added. “That is a very concerning development.”

Judge Ramsey agreed to vacate Calhoun’s convictions and apologized for the delay, noting that “it was certainly the court's intent to ensure that there was an opportunity for due diligence, and the court must ensure that justice is done and simply gave an opportunity for a second look.”

Calhoun, now 35, chose not to speak to the court during the hearing. He was released from detention on Wednesday, and his lawyers say he will now join his family out of state.

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