Man files $100M lawsuit over wrongful conviction: "It was torture." | Michigan Radio
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Man files $100M lawsuit over wrongful conviction: "It was torture."

Aug 8, 2019

One of two men convicted of a 1999 murder is suing two ex-Detroit Police investigators for allegedly fabricating the case against him.

Justly Johnson alleges the now-retired homicide detectives, Catherine Adams and Barbara Simon, coerced teenagers into falsely testifying that Johnson and Kendrick Scott shot and killed Lisa Steinberg Kindred in a robbery gone wrong.

Attorney Wolfgang Mueller, left, and Justly Johnson.
Credit Sarah Cwiek / Michigan Radio

Johnson always insisted he was innocent. Last fall, the Michigan Supreme Court vacated his conviction after new evidence came to light, and Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy dropped all charges against him and Scott.

Former TV investigative journalist and private investigator Scott Lewis helped unearth that new evidence. He found the murder victim’s son, who had witnessed the crime as an eight-year-old. He testified that police had never interviewed him, and that neither Johnson nor Scott was the shooter.

Lewis says the type of police misconduct Johnson alleges was widespread in Detroit at the time.

“Not all of these homicide cops were dirty, but I think there were a significant number of them who took shortcuts and pounded square pegs into round holes to solve cases,” Lewis said.

The Detroit Police Department was under federal oversight from 2003 until 2016 for a number of reasons, including the illegal detention and mistreatment of witnesses.

Johnson said Simon told him back in 1999 that she was under pressure from top Detroit officials to close the murder case by any means necessary.

“Investigator Barbara Simon literally came and told me that the mayor was on her boss, and her boss was on them, to charge us with murder,” Johnson said. “It didn’t matter if we was innocent or guilty. There wasn’t a jury in America that wasn’t going to convict us of killing a white lady. And it hurt my soul, because I was innocent.

“At that moment, I knew I was going to be framed for murder.”

According to the lawsuit, which names only Adams and Simon in their individual capacities, police rounded up people who happened to be near the crime scene on Bewick street on Detroit’s east side. They included two teenagers—one illiterate, and one mentally ill—who were subsequently interrogated by police. There, after hours of interrogation, both eventually gave statements implicating Johnson and Scott as the killers.

But those statements and testimony were “fabricated, having been the result of physical violence, threats and coercion,” according to the lawsuit.

Johnson and Scott were convicted based solely on that testimony. The police also withheld evidence that pointed to Lisa Kindred’s husband as a suspect, the lawsuit asserts.

The lawsuit seeks $100 million in damages for Johnson, who’s also eligible for state compensation under Michigan’s Wrongful Imprisonment Compensation Act.

Johnson’s attorney, Wolfgang Mueller, admits some may see that as “a ridiculously high amount of compensation.” But he says that needs to be weighed against the “absurd amount of harm these guys went through because of police misconduct.”

“Nobody would ever say, $50 million, $100 million, give me that. I’ll spend the next 20 years in a cage,” Mueller said. “That’s the perspective we need to look at it from.”

Johnson, now 44, says that after his release from prison last year, he’s been enjoying “the small things” in life.

“Being around family, sitting on the porch, driving in the car…seeing the birds, dogs, being able to eat what I want to eat, talking on the phone for more than 15 minutes…it’s the simple things,” Johnson said. “Just having conversations with people.

“The smallest things. That is the significance of my freedom. That right there makes it all right.”