Oakland County Prosecutor Karen McDonald says an independent special prosecutor will investigate her own office after she discovered at least one case of what could be prosecutorial misconduct--one that could call into question a number of convictions, and has already affected the prosecution of the men accused of conspiring to kidnap Governor Gretchen Whitmer.
The case involves the 2006 conviction of Juwan Deering, who was found guilty of setting a house fire that killed five children in Royal Oak Township. Deering was convicted in part based on expert testimony about the fire that his attorney calls “junk science,” and the testimony of three jailhouse informants who said Deering confessed to the crime.
McDonald began reviewing the case at the request of the Michigan Innocence Clinic, which represents Deering in his efforts to have his conviction overturned. That request was based largely on questions about the fire science, but McDonald quickly discovered even more questionable evidence.
“A few attorneys from my office approached me and said they had some serious concerns about the case, and began to disclose the history of it,” McDonald said. One red flag was that the prosecutor’s office had actually denied Oakland County Sheriff’s Department’s warrant requests for Deering multiple times over the course of years—until then-assistant prosecutor Gregory Townsend took over the case in early 2006.
McDonald then discovered evidence that the jailhouse informants had received favors in exchange for their testimony. Prosecutors are required to reveal that information to the defense and the jury, but in this case, both “the assistant prosecutor and the informant testified that they never received anything for their testimony,” McDonald said. “And, of course, that is not permissible.”
McDonald revealed this to Imran Syed, a lawyer with the Michigan Innocence Clinic who represents Deering. Syed said they had suspected all along that the informants’ testimony was bogus, but this information was “a truly astonishing revelation about a pattern of misconduct from the sheriff's department, and from some people within the prosecutor's office, back at around the time of Mr. Deering’s trial.”
“They used an expert who gave testimony saying this fire was intentionally started with lighter fluid. That expert testimony was junk science even at the time of trial,” said Syed, who believes the fire was most likely accidental and not a crime at all. “The backbone of the case is this junk expert testimony, and jailhouse informants who say that Mr. Deering confessed to them.
“We finally have proof that the jailhouse informants, in fact, received benefits for testifying against Mr. Deering, and that they have a history of being snitches for the Oakland County Sheriff's Department.”
McDonald said that in addition to bringing in the special prosecutor, whom she expects to name by next week, she’s implemented mandatory ethnical training for all prosecutors in her office, and will no longer allow jailhouse informant testimony without her direct consent.
McDonald said the special prosecutor will be tasked with looking at this case and all cases involving the three informants who testified against Deering, whom McDonald said have served as witnesses in “numerous” other Oakland County criminal cases. She admitted the fallout could be huge.
“It could unravel a lot of convictions,” McDonald said. “I really hope that it doesn't, but that is not my concern right now. My concern is that we do the right thing.”
“It’s the ethical obligation of the prosecutor. The public needs to trust that the people who make decisions about who is going to be charged with a crime, and what crime they're going to be charged with, and convicting them are ethical people who follow the rules.”
McDonald’s announcement is also having an impact on a wholly-unrelated present-day criminal trial: that of the men accused of plotting to kidnap Governor Gretchen Whitmer. The lead prosecutor in the state-level case is Assistant Michigan Attorney General Gregory Townsend—the former Oakland County assistant prosecutor in charge of Deering’s case, and now accused of misconduct. As of Friday, he had been removed from that case.
“We were advised of concerns raised by Oakland County Prosecutor Karen McDonald regarding a case and have taken appropriate steps in response,” Lyndsey Mukomel, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Dana Nessel, said in a statement. “As a result, Assistant Attorney General Greg Townsend was reassigned from his docket while the Department of Attorney General performs a comprehensive audit of his work.”
And finally, there’s Deering’s case itself. Syed is hopeful that with McDonald’s support, Deering’s years-long efforts to get his conviction overturned will pay off: “I'm hoping that we're at a point where it's just a matter of time, and hopefully not much time, before he's released.”