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Amid Legal Misconduct Allegations, A Michigan Man Has Been Exonerated Of A 2000 Arson Attack That Killed 5 Kids
Oakland County's lead prosecutor fought for the decision after discovering serious prosecutorial misconduct in the case — 15 years later
A Detroit-area man stepped out of prison after 15 years this week as county prosecutors successfully joined in an effort to exonerate him for a crime he has always said he never committed.
Juwan Deering, 50, was told he will not face another trial in the 2000 case that resulted in his imprisonment, and the Oakland County prosecutor's office has said that an investigation into both the wrongful conviction and the original case will continue, the Oakland Press reported. He left prison on Thursday.
"This was the day I looked forward to, seeing my family again," Deering said outside the court building, Detroit News reported. "I never gave up (hope)," he said. "I didn't think a god I believed in would keep me in prison for something I didn't do.
In his case, a fire in Deering's neighborhood of Royal Oak Township, Michigan, killed five children: Taleigha Dean, 10; Craig Dean, 8; Aaron Dean, 7; Eugene Dean, 5; and Michelle Frame, 11. Timm Dean, 13, survived the fire, the Detroit News reported.
Prosecutors alleged at the trial that Deering set the fire as retaliation over the Dean children's father's unpaid drug debts. He was convicted in 2006 of one count of arson and five counts of felony murder and sentenced to life without parole, according to the Detroit Free Press, after a trial, which was broadcast on Court TV, that hinged on the now-discredited testimony of three jailhouse informants and an edited video.
Prosecutors never informed the jury or the defense that the informants had received legal consideration for their testimony, which is illegal. The Detroit News reported this year that all three had their sentences reduced and one had their charges dismissed. And the video of Timm Dean presented at trial and had offered to the defense during its discovery phase reportedly omitted the section where the teenage fire survivor told police that he recognized Deering, but that there were two men named Juwan in the neighborhood. Deering wasn't the one who he saw outside the home before the fire, the Detroit News and Free Press previously reported.
The Free Press reported in May that the prosecuting lawyer in Deering's case, Greg Townsend, had for years repeatedly attempted to overrule a decision by the officer's then-Chief of Warrants James Halushka not to bring charges in the case. Halushka said they didn't have enough evidence and warned Townsend to stay away from the case. But in January 2006, then-county prosecutor David Gorcyca fired Halushka over several cases where he'd been adamant that there was not enough evidence to bring charges — including the case against Deering.
Townsend authorized the warrant against Deering in March 2006. Gorcyca told the Free Press that the evidence McDonald showed him this year about the informants and the video convinced him that Deering was denied the right to a fair trial by his office.
McDonald, who had been an elected Oakland County Circuit Court judge, resigned her position to run for county prosecutor as a Democrat on a reformist platform in 2020, the Free Press reported after her win. Though Deering has been represented for years by the Michigan Innocence Project — which has primarily argued that the forensics used to classify the fire as arson were faulty, though the courts rejected that — the Free Press reported that McDonald took up the case and others in May after reviewing the Project's claims.
She then appointed a special prosecutor to investigate the office's use of jailhouse informants. That special prosecutor's report, which came out in August, revealed that the jury and defense were misled about the incentives offered to the jailhouse informants, as well as the existence of the exculpatory part of the witness video, according to the Free Press.
McDonald told the media that investigations into the prosecution are continuing, and she had asked the state police to re-investigate the fire to confirm whether the determination that it was arson was correct, according to NPR.
Townsend, who had been working as an assistant attorney general for the state of Michigan, was reassigned from his docket in May after the report was released, according to the Free Press at the time; the Oakland Press reported that he retired from that office in July.
McDonald told the Oakland Press that the allegations of prosecutorial misconduct had been filed with the Attorney Grievance Commission. She told Detroit News that the state police are separately investigating those misconduct charges as well as the allegations that the three jailhouse informants perjured themselves at trial.
Deering may be eligible for $700,000 in restitution from the state, due to a law that compensates those who are incarcerated as the result of a wrongful conviction, NPR reported.