After 40 Years in Prison, Innocent Michigan Man Walks Free
I remember a time when I was younger when I had utterly blind faith in our justice system. The truth would always prevail right? Unfortunately, that's not the case. Evidence isn't always clear, investigations can be rushed, and eye witness testimonies have been found to be unreliable and often times inaccurate. In fact, an eye witness testimony cost one Michigan man 40 years of his life.
Walter Forbes was a college kid in 1982 when he got in between two groups fighting outside of a bar in Jackson. Now, I'm not sure of the background but it sounds like there may have been some familiarity between these people, which is 100% an assumption on my part, based on the next series of events.
One of the men who was stopped from fighting, Dennis Hall, sought revenge the next day by shooting Forbes four times. Not too long after that incident, while he was on bail for the shooting, Hall died in a fire in his apartment. An eye witness placed Forbes at the scene and he was arrested as reported by CNN.
Here's where things get a little convoluted, in my opinion.
An eye witness, Annice Kennebrew, placed Forbes at the scene of the fire. In her testimony to police she said she saw:
- Three men, including Forbes, near the building before the fire started
- They were carrying red gas cannisters
- They poured gasoline outside of the building before setting it on fire.
Here's what investigators found at the scene of the crime:
- Blue gas cannisters
- Evidence of accelerant inside the apartment only
Three men, including Forbes, were brought in. One passed a polygraph and had the charges dropped. One was acquitted. Forbes was arrested and charged.
Huh?? The eye witness report was completely different than the evidence that was discovered at the scene. How was Forbes the one convicted? Now, maybe you're saying something like, "well, we don't know all the evidence." And that's true. But, there are other things that make this arrest and conviction questionable. Including someone else who had a motive.
Apparently, an anonymous tip was made to the police a few days after the fire placing the blame on the building's owner. It was dismissed at the time. However, it was found that the building owner got insurance on the building just two months before the fire. Coincidence? Maybe. Did it deserve further investigation? Absolutely. in fact, according to CNN, "a witness came forward, informing the local fire investigator that an acquaintance had admitted setting the fire for Jones in exchange for $1,000, according to court documents." It's unclear if the police followed up on any of that information.
Now, decades later, the eye witness, Annice Kennebrew, has recanted her testimony. This is where it gets a little hard for me to understand. She says she was pressured to pin the fire on Forbes and was threatened to ensure that she would do it. It's unclear who those people were that pressured her or why. Which is not discounting her story...I just don't have the answers. Regardless, her decision to recant her story got the ball rolling for this innocent man to be released from prison.
Thanks to work by the Michigan Innocence Clinic, which is run by students and lawyers at Michigan University, a judge threw out Forbes' conviction this fall and the prosecutor filed a motion to dismiss the case. Walter Forbes officially walked out, a free man, on November 20th. He says he hopes to continue the work he began in prison with prison reform.
To me, this case is almost straightforward. A man should not face life in prison based on one person's eye witness testimony. And it should not have taken this long to exonerate this man.
If you didn't feel like reading and just want a quick recap of Walter's Story...here you go!
I want to believe in the justice system. But, I think we have a long way to go and a lot of wrongs to right, like with Walter Forbes. Again, these are my opinions as a lowly radio host. I have no criminal justice background of any sort. I'm glad this innocent man was freed but it makes me wonder...what about the rest? And how many more people are locked up based on very shaky evidence?