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With new evidence, Oakland County Prosecutor supports vacating 2006 conviction

Oakland County

Oakland County Prosecutor Karen McDonald said Tuesday that she will join efforts to overturn the 2006 conviction of Juwan Deering.

Deering was convicted of setting a house fire that killed five children in Royal Oak Township. But McDonald’s office recently uncovered evidence that seems to show Deering did not receive a fair trial.

In May, McDonald announced that she’d discovered that jailhouse informants who testified against Deering received special treatment in exchange. Neither the defense nor the jury ever heard that information.

“Those informants were given plea bargains. Their sentences were reduced sometimes by many years, or their cases were outright dismissed for the cooperation before and after the jury trial. The jury never heard any of [this],” McDonald said.

After that revelation, McDonald brought in a special prosecutor to investigate her office’s handling of the Deering case. That prosecutor uncovered a videotaped interview of a photo lineup with a child witness to the fire. But part of the video—which showed the child implicating a different person in the crime, and explicitly stating that it wasn’t Deering—was never revealed to defense attorneys, or introduced at trial.

“No one in my office, and none of Mr. Deering’s attorneys, had ever seen or heard about this photo line-up,” McDonald said. “The jury never saw or heard any of that.”

McDonald said the special prosecutor found this previously unknown part of the video interview in Oakland County Sheriff’s files that were turned over to the Michigan State Police. MSP is conducting its own criminal investigation into possible official misconduct in the Deering case.

Imran Syed is a University of Michigan Innocence Clinic attorney who’s represented Deering in his years-long battle for exoneration. Syed calls Deering’s case “egregious.”

“With the series of constitutional violations and suppression of favorable evidence, this is probably the worst case that we've ever come across in terms of just the volume of favorable evidence that was not turned over to the defense,” Syed said.

“And who knows how long that continued as far as having a pattern of not turning over evidence. I think it would be very naive to say that this is the only case where this prosecutor's office and the sheriff's department broke the rules.”

Oakland County Sheriff’s Department spokesman Michael McCabe said he could not comment on the Deering case, citing an ongoing internal investigation. McCabe said that investigation is awaiting the results of the MSP’s criminal investigation.

The former Oakland County assistant prosecutor who was in charge of the Deering case, Gregory Townsend, was working for the Michigan attorney general’s office when McDonald first announced her concerns about the Deering case earlier this year. Townsend had been spearheading the prosecution of the men accused of plotting to kidnap Governor Gretchen Whitmer.

In May, the attorney general’s office removed Townsend from that case, pending a “comprehensive audit of his work.” Townsend is now no longer with the office, spokeswoman Lynsey Mukomel said Tuesday.

"We take Prosecutor McDonald’s findings seriously, as we did when she first announced the Special Prosecutor's review in May,” Mukomel said in a statement. “At that time, Assistant Attorney General Greg Townsend was reassigned from his docket for the purpose of performing a comprehensive audit of his work. AAG Townsend retired from the Department July 12.

“While the audit remains ongoing, the Department's exhaustive review of his cases has not identified any that pose a concern. That said, the Department remains committed to its due diligence and will be contacting defense counsel in cases identified as deserving additional scrutiny. No additional details will be released at this time given that process continues." 

As for the effort to free Deering, Syed said he plans to file a motion Wednesday to vacate his conviction in Oakland County Circuit Court. He also plans to file a motion asking the court to free Deering on bond while the case proceeds.

McDonald plans to support that motion. “I will join them in that request, because it’s the right thing to do,” she said.

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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