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Detroit faces yet another multi-million dollar payout for wrongful conviction case

Justly Johnson sued the city of Detroit over his wrongful conviction in 2019.
Sarah Cwiek
Michigan Radio
Justly Johnson sued the city of Detroit over his wrongful conviction in 2019.

The city of Detroit is ready to make yet another major payout to settle a civil lawsuit stemming from a wrongful conviction case.

Justly Johnson and Kendrick Scott were convicted of the 1999 Mother’s Day murder of Lisa Kindred. Both maintained their innocence, and new evidence uncovered by investigators ultimately led to the Michigan Supreme Court vacating their convictions in 2018. They were officially exonerated shortly afterward.

The proposed settlements, which still need Detroit City Council approval, would pay each man $8.25 million. It would be the latest multi-million payout the city has had to make to settle a slew of wrongful conviction lawsuits, many of them dating back to the late 1990s and early 2000s, shortly before the Detroit Police Department was put under a federal consent decree for a series of constitutional violations.

Johnson’s lawyer Wolfgang Mueller said the police department, particularly its homicide squad, was a “rogue group” during that era. He said the settlements may sound like a lot of money, but “When you're talking about somebody who's been robbed of 20 or 30 years of their life, [and] spent the prime of their life in a cage, these settlements are nowhere near what would adequately or should compensate the exonerees.”

Detroit is still facing at least a dozen more civil lawsuits over wrongful convictions. Mueller, who represents a number of exonerees who are suing, said the city initially used “scorched earth tactics” to try and fight them — but that stance has evolved over time into a willingness to settle.

He said it's in the city's interest to avoid a trial.

“In the case of a jury verdict, where a jury hears all the facts, the risk to the city is too great that there could be a $100 million verdict,” Mueller said. “And that would really decimate the city.”

If Johnson and Scott’s settlements are approved, the city will have paid out more than $40 million to settle wrongful conviction cases in just the past two years. They include a $7.5 million settlement for Davontae Sanford, who was exonerated after police coerced him into falsely confessing to a quadruple murder at age 15; and another $7.5 million for Desmond Ricks, who said Detroit police framed him for a 1992 murder by fabricating ballistics evidence.

A city of Detroit spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the proposed Johnson settlement. But city law department leaders have expressed alarm in the past over the massive price tag.

Testifying before a Detroit City Council committee in March of this year, interim legal director Charles Raimi said the lawsuits raise “very serious liability issues for the city.” Raimi also questioned the validity of the some of the exonerations, calling them “reverse convictions.”

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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