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Wrongfully-convicted Detroit man freed after 15 years in prison

Aaron Salter
Michigan Department of Corrections

After spending 15 years behind bars for a murder he didn’t commit, Aaron Salter walked out of prison a free man Wednesday, as Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy dismissed charges against him.

Salter was convicted of shooting at four people on a Detroit porch 2003. One man was killed, and Salter was tried and convicted of the murder based solely on eyewitness testimony from one of the victims.

But Salter maintained his innocence, unsuccessfully fighting his conviction in state courts. The Federal Defenders Office picked up his case in 2009, and subsequently uncovered evidence that the eyewitness identification was shaky at best.

“Throughout the course of the representation, FDO investigators and attorneys uncovered previously undisclosed evidence and interviewed witnesses who could confirm Mr. Salter’s alibi at the time of the shooting,” the Wayne County prosecutor’s office said in a release Wednesday.

“They found and interviewed a witness who was the sole eyewitness at trial, who stated that he was never certain Mr. Salter was the shooter. In 2013, a prisoner contacted the FDO attorneys claiming to have personal knowledge of the shooting. After following up on that lead, the FDO attorneys hired a former FBI polygrapher, to conduct a polygraph examination of Aaron Salter, which he passed.”

Wayne County’s new Conviction Integrity Unit, which reviewed and picked up Salter’s case in March 2018, uncovered further evidence pointing to his innocence.

The description that the victim witness who identified Salter initially gave of the shooter “bears no resemblance to Aaron Salter,” they found. In addition: “He was viewing the [2] shooters at night through a small space in a privacy screen. He viewed the shooters only momentarily, under the duress of the shooting, while he was trying to flee, with his back turned to the gun fire.”

The CIU investigators also found that when presented by police with a photo array back in 2003, the witness “picked out three people who 'resembled' the two shooters.” The victim witness admitted “not ever being sure of his identification of Aaron Salter.” Furthermore, the investigating officer in charge “recalled the case as being very weak.”

After re-interviewing Salter alibi witnesses who had never testified and other connected to the case, the CIU determined that it could not prove Salter’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Prosecutor Kym Worthy agreed, and decided to dismiss the charges against Salter.

“The system failed him,” Worthy said in a statement. “Nothing I can say will bring back the years of his life spent in prison. Justice is truly being served today.

“We will recommend to the Michigan Attorney General’s Office that Mr. Salter receive wrongful conviction compensation. We sincerely wish him well.”

Jonathan Epstein, one of Salter’s attorneys with the Federal Defenders Office, called Salter’s release “awesome,” and said the drive to free him had been “a real team effort.”

“We clearly that demonstrated that this was a wrongful conviction,” Epstein said.

On Wednesday, Epstein and other members of that team drove to the Upper Peninsula prison where Salter was being held to pick him up and return him to Detroit. They will hold a barbecue to celebrate his release with Salter, family, and friends on Friday.

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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