Brothers could receive $1.25M each for wrongful conviction: “I’d rather have the 26 years back”
"It was an out-of-body experience."
That's how Raymond Highers described the moment when the judge sentenced him and his brother Tommy Highers to life without parole for a murder they didn't commit.
It took 26 years for them to be exonerated, leaving them to adjust to life on the outside after more than a quarter century behind bars.
Raymond and Tommy Highers joined Stateside to talk about their journey that began on the east side of Detroit in 1987.
The main thing was you couldn't understand it. You're innocent and you never thought that the justice system would let you down like this. It was just incomprehensible.
Ray was 19 years old and working part-time for his step father as a carpenter in Flat Rock. One Friday night, they went in to Detroit to hang out with friends. They stopped to buy a bag of weed from Robert Karey, otherwise known as "Old Man Bob"
When they arrived at his house on the city's East Side, there were police cars everywhere. Assuming Bob was getting raided, they left.
Little did they know, earlier that evening, a series of events unfolded that would change their lives forever.
A car full of kids from Grosse Point Shores arrived at Old Man Bob's house looking to buy some weed too. Two of them got out of the car and approached the back door of Bob's house. According to Raymond, as they reached the back door, four men jumped the fence with guns and told the two teenagers to leave. As they were leaving, one of the men fatally shot Bob.
Each day [in prison] was pure hell ... knowing that you're innocent and you're still there but you have to adapt to your situation to survive to keep your sanity. The biggest thing was just, I always had the hope and somehow I knew that there would be a day that we would get out of there. That God wasn't going to let us die in prison for something we didn't do.
A nearby witness saw the two teenagers go up to the back door, heard a gunshot, and then saw the two kids running back down the driveway. They had assumed that they were the ones who fired the shots.
Raymond was picked out of a lineup and it went all downhill from there.
After standing trial, the two brothers were found guilty of murder.
"It was an out-of-body experience, especially for an innocent man to be in there and then get sentenced to natural life in the state penitentiary without the possibility of parole," Raymond said. "It was just unreal. It was just an out-of-body experience. It was over."
"The main thing was you couldn't understand it," Raymond added. "You're innocent and you never thought that the justice system would let you down like this. It was just incomprehensible."
"I just kind of went numb, I heard bells," said Tommy. "It was like, just turning around looking around at all of our families and not understanding themselves what's going on. Everybody's crying and emotional and here two kids are going away for life for something they didn't do. It was just devastating for us all."
The two were sent to prison, but at least there was a small silver lining in that they were serving the time together. With that support of a sibling, and their religious conviction, there was hope.
"Each day was pure hell," Raymond said. "Pure hell, knowing that you're innocent and you're still there but you have to adapt to your situation to survive to keep your sanity. The biggest thing was just, I always had the hope and somehow I knew that there would be a day that we would get out of there. That God wasn't going to let us die in prison for something we didn't do. And that always stayed with me. So I kinda stayed positive. It was just through the grace of God to give us that attitude to keep moving forward and not go crazy or not do something ridiculous in [prison]."
They kept out of trouble behind bars, but five years into the sentence, there was a policy change. Now, family members could not be held together in the same prison.
"That was like being sentenced all over again," Tommy said. "Because you got your sibling there. You don't have to question his loyalty or you don't have to question his sincerity ... just knowing that each of us are innocent. Just to have that comfort going through that with. It was a rough time at first, you had to adjust to it, not having him around anymore."
The two brothers worked hard to try to find a way out. They met and became friendly with the staff at the prison, they made phone calls when they could, trying to find someone who could help them get out of prison.
Through a chance encounter, a lawyer named Kevin Zieleniewski, stumbled upon a Facebook post by a woman named Mary Evans, a former high school classmate of the Highers brothers. The two corresponded, and by a stroke of luck, Zieleniewski knew someone who was at the scene of the crime back in 1987. His friend had been one of the two men who approached Old Man Bob's back door.
This allowed the case to be re-opened and a judge ultimately dropped the convictions.
When the two were finally released in 2012, it was a big adjustment.
"It was like being reborn at 47," said Raymond. "The emotions, the confusion, the reality of being home and wanting to catch up with everything and knowing that you can never catch up with what you lost. And then the drive to just go forward. It's done, it's over. And let's just look forward [to] tomorrow."
Recently, Public Act 843 went into affect, which gives people who are wrongly convicted, compensation ($50,000 per year) for time spent in prison. However, their exoneration took place before the act was signed into law. The two could each receive as much as $1.25 million for the time they spent in prison.
Listen to the full interview above to hear how they are adjusting to life on the outside and how their lives could be changed if they are awarded the financial compensation.