Police Misconduct and Brutality
Police brutality between 1986 and 1989 took on many forms. From physical and verbal assaults against suspects or people in custody to sexual and gender-based violence, the Detroit Police Department was, without a doubt, fraught with the issue of unjustified misconduct against civilians. Operation Crack Crime, a program whose mission was significantly centered around raids and assaults on presumed crack houses and drug dealers. This led to a movement from misconduct taking place primarily on the street to
Another change to policing in this time period was the decision of Tennessee v. Garner. In 1985, the Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional to shoot a fleeing suspect in the back. This added a newfound level of caution needed by police officers, likely reducing the number of incidents of homicide or shooting related incidents.
Although the effects of affirmative action led to the introduction of more female and African American officers, this did not necessarily mean that there was equal treatment for all parties. The consequential variety of police misconduct resulted in sexual harrassment and racism against fellow officers. One such incident took place in 1987, at which time Cheryl Preston, a married, African American police officer (and mother of two) filed a lawsuit stating that she had been sexually harrassed in her short time working for the Detroit Police Department. In the suit, Preston stated that one of her superiors had suggested that she sleep with him in order to receive a promotion. When she declined, he began to frequently harrass her, even involving other officers in the abuse. Additionally, Preston stated that she had been groped by a different officer, leading her to "a complete emotional breakdown," for which Preston went on medical leave. However, the Detroit Police Department refused to pay for her time off, docking her nearly $3,000 in pay. Cheryl Preston received $900,000 of the $7 million for which she had sued. Following the trial, Preston stated that female police officers are "treated like stepchildren," in the Detroit Police Department.
Wrongful Convictions and Exonerations
Wrongful convictions are not commonly thought of as violence. Yet it is hard to come up with a better word to describe the processes of forcefully taking an innocent person away from their life and loved ones, putting them into a confined space, and stripping them of nearly every conceivable right and freedom. Moreover, carceral spaces such as jails and prisons are notorious for their high rates of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. The stories of exonerated individuals are thus an important part of the broader patterns of police violence and carceral violence that this digital exhibit seeks to document.
Although comprehensive data on wrongful convictions is nearly impossible to obtain, the National Registry of Exonerations has made an effort to document as many cases as possible of wrongfully convicted individuals who have since been legally exonerated. This data, despite being incomplete, can provide a glimpse into patterns of wrongful convictions in Detroit. There are eight known cases of individuals wrongfully convicted between 1986 and 1989 who have since been legally exonerated. Those cases are detailed below:
Danny Burton (Black, Male, 19 at time of conviction) was wrongfully convicted of the 1987 murder of Leonard Ruffin in Detroit. Burton first became a suspect in the case after 17-year-old Paul Young confessed involvement to investigators and implicated Burton and another man named David Owens. However, Young's statement was never brought as evidence in Burton's trial because it was discovered that he had been beaten by Detective Ronald Sanders of the Detroit Police Department prior to giving his statement. After Burton and Young were convicted a lawyer for Young discovered that three other witnesses who testified against the pair had also been coerced by Ronald Sanders into making false statements. Sanders had allegedly beat, bribed, threatened, and emotionally abused multiple witnesses as well as Burton himself. Burton was finally released in 2019 after serving 32 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. He received $1.6 million from the state of Michigan for his wrongful imprisonment.
Paul Young (Black, Male, 17 at time of conviction) was wrongfully convicted of the 1987 murder of Leonard Ruffin in Detroit. After being taken in for questioning by Detroit police, Young was subjected to physical violence, confinement in a tight space, and was denied a phone call and a lawyer. Despite initially insisting that he was innocent Young was eventually coerced by Detective Ronald Sanders into signing a confession that police had written, feeling it was his only way to escape the abuse. The confession also implicated Danny Burton and David Owens, who were with Young on the night of the murder and could have provided him with an alibi. Young's confession was not brought in as evidence in the trial because a judge ordered it inadmissible due to the nature of his interrogation. Several witnesses did testify against Young and he was convicted. Years later Young's post-conviction lawyer discovered that all the witnesses against him had also been coerced into making false statements through beatings, bribes, threat, and emotional abuse. Young was released from prison in 2019 but his conviction was not vacated until September 26, 2021.
Raymond Highers (White, Male, 20 at time of arrest) and his brother Thomas Highers were wrongfully convicted of the 1987 murder of Robert Karey. The pair became suspects after one witness told police they had seen two white men fleeing the scene of the crime and another witness claimed to have heard one of the brothers announce that the two had a plan to rob Karey. After both brothers had been convicted and handed sentences of life in prison, two new witnesses were discovered who contradicted the testimony presented at trial. In July 2012 the two were granted a new trial and both were released shortly after. The brothers were not fully exonerated until 2013 when prosecutors dropped all remaining charges against them. They had spent 25 years incarcerated before their release.
Thomas Highers (White, Male, 21 at time of arrest) and his brother Raymond Highers were wrongfully convicted of the 1987 murder of Robert Karey. The pair became suspects after one witness told police they had seen two white men fleeing the scene of the crime and another witness claimed to have heard one of the brothers announce that the two had a plan to rob Karey. After both brothers had been convicted and handed sentences of life in prison, two new witnesses were discovered who contradicted the testimony presented at trial. In July 2012 the two were granted a new trial and both were released shortly after. The brothers were not fully exonerated until 2013 when prosecutors dropped all remaining charges against them. They had spent 25 years incarcerated before their release.
David Owens (Black, Male, 19 at time of alleged crime) was wrongfully convicted of murder for the killing of Leonard Ruffin in Detroit in 1987. Owens became a suspect after Detroit police Detective Ronald Sanders violently forced Owens' friend, 17 year old Paul Young, into signing a false confession. Young's confession implicated David Owens and another young man named Danny Burton. All three were eventually convicted. In 2007 a lawyer for Danny Burton received statements from three witnesses who had testified against Burton, Young, and Owens, revealing that the witnesses had been bribed, beated, threatened, and emotionally abused by Detective Ronald Sanders and, ultimately, forced to make false statements against the convicted trio. Despite the new evidence Owens remained in prison until 2014 when he was granted release on parole. Owen's conviction was not vacated until 2021, he had served 26 years in prison.
Charlie Mitchell (Black, Male, 34 at time of alleged crime) was wrongfully convicted of murder for the killing of Raymond Harlin in 1988 in Detroit. Mitchell was convicted despite making multiple official requests for a change in his court-appointed defense attorney. Gerald Evelyn, the lawyer appointed to defend Mitchell, only met with him for a total of six minutes prior to trial, did not present an opening statement, and failed to call multiple relevant defense witnesses. Moreover, Evelyn had his law license temporarily revoked for a month in the leadup to Mitchell's trial. Mitchell continued to appeal his conviction on the basis of ineffective assistance of counsel but was not released until 2001 when he was granted parole. Around the same time a judge vacated Mitchell's previous conviction and granted him a new trial. The prosecutor's office did not drop the charges against Mitchell until 2006. Mitchell had spent 12 years wrongfully incarcerated.
Bernard Young (Black, Male, 29 at time of arrest) was wrongfully convicted of criminal sexual conduct related to the long-term sexual abuse of two young boys in Detroit. Young became a suspect in the case after the boys told their social worker that Young had molested them while acting as their babysitter. After one of the two boys identified Young in a lineup, Young was charged for the crime. Before Young went to trial the two boys told a therapist and a police investigator that they had been abused by their mother's partner, a man named William Clark, and that Young had not abused them. The prosecution, however, failed to disclose these statements at the time of the trial. When Young was tried the mother of the two victims testified that Clark was regularly a babysitter for the children and that Young had never acted in that capacity. Young was nevertheless convicted and sentenced to 60-100 years in prison. Several months later charges were brought against Wlliam Clark for sexual and physical abuse against the two children. Clark was only convicted for the physical abuse and was sentenced to six months in jail. In 2015 a lawyer for Young obtained a statement from one of the two victims saying that Young had not abused him and his brother and that Clark, the real abuser, had threatened them and made them falsely accuse Young. In 2017 a judge vacated Young's conviction, granting him a new trial. Later that year a prosecutor dismissed the charges against him. Young ultimately served 28 years incarcerated for a crime he did not commit. In 2020 Young reached a settlement in a suit he had brought against the city of Detroit and was awarded nearly $900,000 in damages. The prosecutor in Young's case, Kelly Ramsey, has since become a judge, and currently serves in the criminal division of Michigan's 3rd Circuit Court.
Waleed Isho (Iraqi, Male, 21 at time of arrest) was wrongfully convicted of attemped murder in relation to the bombing of a gas station that occured in Detroit in 1989. Isho was identified by two witnesses as having thrown the bomb, and another witness testified that Isho resembled the person they had seen throw the bomb. Despite the testimony of four alibi witnesses that Isho had been with them at the time of the bombing, Isho was nevertheless convicted and handed a sentence of 8-20 years. In 2002 Isho was granted release on parole, yet because of his conviction the state initiated deportation proceedings against him, threatening to send him to Iraq. In 2020 the Wayne County Conviction Integrity Unit examined Isho's case and obtained testimony from one of the witnesses who had identified Isho as the bomber stating that another witness had paid $2,500 for them to give testimony incriminating Isho. Later that year Isho's conviction was vacated and the charges against him were dropped. Isho served 12 years in prison and in 2021 the state of Michigan issued him over $600,000 in compensation.