Vidale McDowell sits in a room at the Thumb Correctional Facility in Lapeer, playing with the zipper on his blue prison jacket. The slender 19-year-old says he is nearly 6 feet tall, but he looks smaller. He is serving a life sentence for second-degree murder.
“I’ve gained weight since I’ve been here,” says McDowell, who claims to weigh 160. He says he is working on his GED at the prison. “I have two more tests to take.”
When McDowell was arrested, he had no police record. He was an 18-year-old senior at Trombley Adultday High School in Detroit, where he says he earned “fair” grades.
How McDowell wound up in prison, convicted of murdering his best friend’s mother, is a bizarre tale.
The primary evidence used to convict McDowell consisted of a written statement from his 13-year-old friend, Antoine Morris, who almost immediately recanted the accusation, saying that police forced it from him.
Antoine, after originally denying he and McDowell played any part in his mother’s Jan. 24, 2002, murder, changed his story after being grilled by detectives for more than 11 hours over two days in February. He accused McDowell of shooting and stabbing Janice Williams. McDowell denied then, and does to this day, that he murdered Antoine’s mother.
Antoine was originally a co-defendant because he also implicated himself in the crime by signing two separate confessions saying he helped McDowell. But after their trial started, the prosecution offered Antoine an unbelievable plea bargain — a deal that let him go free on probation. It seemed an easy choice: Risk going to prison for life or go home.
Still, Antoine wasn’t buying it. Neither were Antoine’s father nor his defense attorney, who maintained the confessions were false and that Antoine and McDowell were innocent. The father and lawyer advised the boy to reject the plea bargain and proceed with the trial, in which he and McDowell were to be tried as adults for first degree murder.
At the prosecutor’s insistence, the judge responded on the spot by appointing a surrogate parent — a guardian ad litem — who advised Antoine to save his own skin.
In retrospect, it appears that the prosecution had no choice but to make the sweetheart deal for Antoine a reality.
If Antoine had testified at his trial, he would have explained that he had long since recanted his “confessions.” He says they weren’t true and that he signed statements the police wanted because his interrogators had convinced him — allegedly outside the presence of his father — that he was bound for jail, where he would become “somebody’s girlfriend.”
The jury that convicted McDowell never heard Antoine’s recantation. Though allegedly the only witness to the murder, Antoine’s plea deal did not require him to testify. His confession was read to the jury.
McDowell never had a chance to cross-examine his accuser. McDowell’s attorney says the fact that Antoine would have disavowed his “confession” is the reason why.
So Antoine goes to school and plays football while his best friend is in prison for life.
And detectives whose work led to McDowell’s conviction defend their actions — despite numerous unresolved questions.
Chief among them: Why was Terry Thompson, a man who was in the house with Janice Williams the night she was killed, quickly dismissed as a suspect? The lead detective on the case, Derryck Thomas, had a ready answer: “He passed a polygraph test and gunpowder residue test.”
The detective couldn’t be more mistaken. Terry Thompson didn’t pass his polygraph test. And the interior of Thompson’s car tested positive for gunpowder residue.
When Metro Times showed Thomas his own department’s polygraph report, which indicated that Thompson had not passed, the detective said, “Oh yeah, he sure didn’t.”
But Thompson wasn’t the only suspect quickly cleared in an investigation fraught with inconsistencies and questionable police work.
Experts say there are many reasons why people confess to crimes they didn’t commit.
The concept seems incomprehensible, but it occurs with some frequency, says Steven Drizin, a law professor and attorney who works at the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law.
They often confess simply to bring an end to one of the most stressful and terrifying experiences they have ever been subjected to, said Drizin. And if you throw into the mix a promise, expressed or implied, that they will get a chance to go home, obtaining a confession is easy as pie.
“A confession is the single most damning evidence in court because jurors have great difficulty understanding why anyone would ever confess to a crime they didn’t commit.”
Drizin says to admit a confession into court without giving the defendant the right to confront his accuser — as occurred in McDowell’s case — “is effectively to deprive this defendant of his only chance of getting an acquittal.”
Not surprisingly, McDowell is appealing his conviction.
Maria Miller, spokeswoman for the Wayne County Prosecutor, said nobody from that office would comment because the case is being appealed.
Det. Thomas told Metro Times, “I’m not going to jeopardize my job and family. I’m not going to step out of bounds to jeopardize that. I wouldn’t make up a confession on anybody. There was no pressure in this case. I do what the law says. I wouldn’t send anyone innocent to jail. I wouldn’t want it to happen to me.”
The crime scene
Detroit police were called to Janice Williams’ three-bedroom bungalow on Wayburn Street on Detroit’s east side at about 2 a.m. on Jan. 24, 2002. A break-in and shooting had been reported. The back door appeared to have been kicked in, according to the police report. A back porch window screen was slashed and the window was open. A single-edge razor blade was found nearby; police suspected it had been used to cut the screen.
A door between the back porch and a bedroom had three impact marks, as if hit with a hammer, according to the police report. A fish tank in the bedroom was knocked over.
In the kitchen was an overturned potted plant. On a toaster oven, in an ashtray, was a half-smoked joint with lipstick prints on it.
Spent 9 mm shell casings and a couple unfired rounds were found on the kitchen floor and basement landing. A bullet strike mark was located under a kitchen counter and a bullet was found inside the utensil drawer. A bullet impacted the doorjamb on the basement landing. A steak knife and bloody boot smudges were on the kitchen floor. A blood smear ran along the basement stairwell wall. A bladeless steak knife handle was found on the stairs.
At the foot of the steps, on the floor, was Williams’ body. The 37-year-old mother of three was lying face up, in a pool of blood. She wore jeans, a pajama top and socks. She had been shot above her left eye, and three times in the right leg and once in her right arm. She had been stabbed in the face twice.
Under Williams’ right leg was a steak-knife blade, probably belonging to the handle found on the stairs, according to the police report.
In the basement, a 9 mm bullet casing was found on the floor. Loose marijuana and tobacco sat on a nearby table. There appeared to be a bullet impact mark on a basement wall, but no bullet was found.
After the police photographed the house and collected evidence, they returned the residence to the family. Over the next several days, Williams’ family and friends traipsed through the house, according to court records. The victim’s niece found a spent shell casing she turned over to police.
Five days after the murder, the police returned to the scene to collect more evidence, including images of two boot impressions behind the house.
Investigators concluded that the break-in was staged.
Also found in Williams’ house on the night of the murder was her 13-year-old son, Antoine, asleep in his mother’s bedroom on the second floor. Officers shook him to rouse him.
When Antoine was told that his mother had been hurt, he cried, asking if she was all right and if he could see her, an officer testified.
Antoine’s sister, Markita Williams, who was 18 at the time and did not live at home, was called to the scene.
At about 3:30 a.m., an officer took a statement from Antoine, who said that he had spent the night at home with his mother, that they had watched “a police movie” in her bedroom and that he had fallen asleep.
When the officer asked if he knew anyone who would want to hurt his mother, Antoine pointed next door, to the home of George Hudgens, who was briefly married to Janice Williams and had a daughter with her.
Asked to explain, Antoine said, “Because he [Hudgens] thought that my mom was going to have full custody of my sister, Jazzane Hudgens,” according to the police report.
Hudgens and Williams were married in 1997; they divorced in 1998.
Shortly before Williams was murdered, she and Hudgens had settled a heated custody battle. The result: both got equal time with their daughter, according to Hudgens.
Antoine told the officer that Hudgens and Williams had fought twice in the past. He said Hudgens threatened his mother, “telling her that he would kill her, shoot her and blow up the house, things like that,” the police report states.
The officers also asked Antoine why Hudgens had a security camera on his house trained on Williams’ home.
“Because he wanted something for court. To keep an eye on my momma,” Antoine responded. “Like when my momma had people over.”
But on the night of the murder, the camera was apparently not functioning; there is no record that police obtained images from it.
The same officer questioned Markita that night. She told him she talked to her mom at about 10:30 p.m. on Jan. 23.
She said that her brother was home with their mom that evening, and that Jazzane was with Hudgens, who had picked her up earlier that day.
Asked if her mother had “any problems with anyone,” Markita mentioned Hudgens. Markita told the officer that Hudgens and her mother “had a couple of fights.”
Markita also named Jasper Lorenzo Holloman. Markita said that her mother was seeing Holloman, who lived in the neighborhood. She said that Holloman and her mother “got into a fight about a month ago. They fought at the doorway. He hit her. My mom told me this. When I came over he kept calling her. I even talk[ed] to him on the phone and he was real nasty, calling her all kinds of whores and bitches,” the police report states.
Williams’ niece, Stephania Jackson, 29, told the police that night that about four months prior, Williams had told her that Holloman had “choked” and “slapped” her, according to the police report.
Hudgens and Holloman both were questioned at police headquarters the day of the murder, and released.
Hudgens told police that he had dropped his daughter off at his mother’s and was with his other ex-wife when the crime occurred. Asked if he fought with Williams, Hudgens said, “No. She tore my shirt off me once. In 1998, her and I were arguing and she stunned me with a stun gun. The police came and I stayed in jail for 21 hours and she stayed in jail for two days, according to the police report.
Asked if Williams is a fighter, Hudgens said, “Yes she is. She will sure fight you.”
Hudgens denied having anything to do with Williams’ murder, but said that he owns three guns, including a 9 mm rifle. Police tested the rifle and determined it was not used to kill his ex-wife, according to trial testimony.
Holloman, meanwhile, told police that he had known Williams for about two years. He said he last spoke to her a couple days before her death, according to the police report.
He said he had never fought with Williams, had nothing to do with her death and was home in bed the night she was murdered.
The lost statement
Another man who made a statement to police was Terry Thompson, who called 911 the night of the murder.
He knew about the shooting because he was in the house when it occurred, according to police records.
In a statement Thompson gave police on Feb. 25, 2002, more than a month after the murder, he stated that he went to Williams’ home at about 10:50 p.m., but she didn’t answer the door. He drove to a pay phone to call her. She answered and said she hadn’t heard him knock because she had nodded off, he told investigators. Thompson returned to the house just after 11 p.m., according to the statement. He and Williams were in the basement smoking marijuana when Williams left him to go upstairs to get some Kool-Aid.
“At first things were quite [quiet], then I heard Janice say, ‘Get out,’ then I heard a scuffling, then I heard Janice say, ‘No, not him,’ at that point I thought Janice was trying to keep them off of me. …” Thompson told police.
Thompson said he heard a male voice say “either, ‘Give me the knife, Twan’ or ‘Twan, give me a knife.’”
“Twan” was Antoine’s nickname.
Thompson added that he saw a profile of the assailant, who was wearing a dark coat and skullcap and was “fair skinned.” When it was quiet, Thompson said he attempted to call police from a basement phone, “but it was dead.”
Thompson stepped over Williams’ body and ran out a side door. Thompson said he knocked on three nearby homes before someone let him call the police.
Thompson never told the 911 operator that he saw anyone or heard any names mentioned, according to trial testimony. Thompson was waiting outside Williams’ home when police arrived, but their reports do not indicate that he said anything about hearing the name “Twan” or seeing a “light-skinned” assailant.
A statement Thompson gave on the night of the murder disappeared.
After police examined the crime scene, they took Thompson to police headquarters where he gave his initial statement, according to police records. However, lawyers for Antoine and McDowell have never seen that statement.
For several months, police claimed that Thompson’s Feb. 25 statement was misdated and should have been dated Jan. 24, the day of the murder.
But Antoine’s attorney, William Ford, was skeptical. Ford argued in court repeatedly that if this was true, then “absolute, total and complete probable cause existed to arrest 13-year-old Antoine Morris on the night of the murder,” which didn’t happen. Ford believed that the January statement did exist but was suppressed because it contradicted Thompson’s February statement, according to court records.
In August, police admitted that Thompson had provided them with a separate statement in January, but that it had been lost. Det. Thomas, who was in charge of the case, testified that the statement Thompson gave in February was identical to the missing statement provided a month earlier.
But if it’s true that the first statement implicated Antoine by name, why didn’t officers immediately arrest him? They sure didn’t waste any time hauling him downtown after Thompson issued his second statement in February — a statement that definitely identified Antoine, using his nickname, “Twan.”
About 13 hours after they questioned Thompson in February, police asked Antoine’s father, Ennis Morris, to bring his son in for questioning. But Det. Thomas told Metro Times that Thompson’s statment did not prompt police to question Antoine. He also said Antoine was a suspect from the start because the crime scene appeared staged. “In the whole house, his was the only room touched, and the back porch.”
According to Thompson’s testimony, he was called to police headquarters at 3 a.m. on Feb. 25 to review his original statement and ensure it was correct. At trial, McDowell’s defense attorney, Jeffery Taylor, asked Thompson, “Did the police explain to you or was there any discussion as to why you were being asked to come back in February, sir?”
“… [T]o make sure my statement was right and all,” Thompson responded.
Thompson testified that he never reviewed his first statement. In fact, he said an officer wrote out a second six-page statement, which he reviewed and made two corrections.
He also testified at trial that the police told him on Feb. 25 that Antoine had “confessed” to the crime.
But Antoine’s first alleged confession did not occur until about 13 hours after Thompson was told that Antoine had confessed, according to police reports.
Hours after getting a new statement from Thompson, Det. Thomas elicited a statement from Antoine on the afternoon of Feb. 25. The statement, which Thomas wrote, says Antoine watched his friend, Vidale McDowell, fatally shoot his mother, and that Antoine helped conceal the crime.
Since his mother’s death, the 13-year-old had been living with his father, Ennis Morris. The father testified at a pretrial hearing that he was never shown the statement or even told that his son knew anything about the crime.
Ennis Morris also testified that he and his son arrived at headquarters at about 1:15 p.m. They briefly met with Thomas and Lt. Roy McCalister Jr.
Minutes thereafter, Ennis Morris testified, he was instructed to leave the room, and not allowed back for about two hours.
When asked to return, the father and son signed a form stating they had been advised of their rights, testified Ennis Morris.
The father testified that the officers again asked him to leave the room; he was gone 30 to 45 minutes. When he returned, Ennis Morris said his son repeatedly told the officers that he “didn’t hear anything” the night his mother was murdered and he had been “asleep.”
The father testified that he was ordered to leave the room at least two more times.
Ennis’ then-wife, Latwanna Morris, testified that she arrived at the police station at about 7:15 p.m. that night and Ennis Morris sat with her for more than an hour while the police questioned his son alone.
According to department policy in place at the time, “A member wishing to interview and question a juvenile with respect to the juvenile’s part in the commission of a crime must do so in the presence of a parent or legal guardian of the juvenile.”
Thomas testified at a pre-trial hearing that Antoine’s father was present during all questioning. Thomas told Metro Times that Ennis Morris lied about being sent out of the room.
“He’s not being truthful,” said Thomas. “He was there the whole time. We talked to that boy. He talked to that boy more than I did.”
McCalister also testified that Ennis Morris was present when his son was questioned.
Latwanna Morris testified at a pre-trial hearing that at 9:45 p.m, after being questioned for about eight-and-a-half hours, Antoine came out of the room without his shoestrings and belt. He looked “lost” and “so tired,” testified Latwanna. When she asked Antoine about the missing items, he told her that they had been taken because “he was getting ready to go to the Wayne County Jail.”
According to department policy, when a prisoner is taken into custody their shoelaces, belt and other apparel is to be removed.
Antoine testified at a pretrial hearing that when his father left the room, Thomas pressured him to confess by telling him he would go to jail if he didn’t. The boy said Thomas told him, “We know you didn’t do anything, Antoine, but we need you to say what we need you to say, if you don’t say what we want you to say, we’re going to take you to Wayne County Jail and you’re going to be somebody’s girlfriend.”
Antoine also testified that Thomas asked him if he knew any people with fair skin. Antoine mentioned three people, including McDowell. According to Antoine’s testimony, shortly thereafter Thomas said, “Your friend Vidale did the crime because we found his fingerprints in the house.” (No fingerprint evidence implicating McDowell was ever presented at trial.)
Antoine testified that Thomas again threatened to send him to jail.
Antoine asked to use the bathroom, but Thomas delayed, causing him to “urinate on myself a little bit,” the boy testified.
Antoine testified that he did not eat during the eight-and-a-half hour interrogation.
Thomas initially claimed he did not feed Antoine because he questioned him for only three hours that day. He later testified that he questioned Antoine for more than three hours.
“I can’t give you a pinpoint what time it was. He was there for a while,” testified Thomas.
He also denied threatening to lock up Antoine in the county jail where other inmates would abuse him.
“… I’m not cruel,” Thomas testified. “I’d never say that in front of a kid or his father.”
The first confession
According to an eight-page confession that Thomas said Antoine dictated to him on Feb. 25, 2002, McDowell shot Williams twice. The confession also said that the night before Williams’ murder, she had grounded her son for being out late with McDowell. Though he wasn’t to see McDowell, McDowell came to Antoine’s house that night to collect some CDs, the confession said. When McDowell went into the kitchen, Antoine’s mother asked why he was there and McDowell answered, “To get my CDs.”
Williams said she would get them for him, but McDowell headed for Antoine’s room; Williams grabbed him by the wrist and McDowell swung at her, according to the confession.
“Then they started fighting in the kitchen. Then Vidale pulled the gun from his hip and shot at her. Then he shot her again and she fell down the steps to the basement. I was just standing there. A minute-and-a-half later, he came back. He came in through the rear sun porch. Then I heard banging on the rear door. I walked back there and that’s when I heard the glass break. Then Vidale came in my room and knocked over the fish tank. Then he left out. I went upstairs and tried to play it off like I was [a]sleep.”
The confession states that McDowell owned two guns, neither of them a 9 mm; there are no police reports or testimony that indicate that the police ever found a gun belonging to McDowell. No murder weapon was ever found. McDowell and his parents told Metro Times that neither they nor their son have ever owned a gun.
In the statement, Antoine explained why he didn’t immediately finger McDowell: “I was scared of what Vidale would do to me. He bully people around and alway[s] beats up on little kids.”
At the bottom of each page of the confession are the signatures of both Antoine and his father.
Ennis Morris testified at a pretrial hearing that at the time, he was shown only the first few pages of his son’s statement, which did not mention the murder. He testified that the latter pages containing a description of the crime were empty when Thomas asked him to sign them.
“It was blank. It wasn’t nothing on there because I signed it. He told me to sign those, and I just signed them,” Ennis Morris testified.
Even though Antoine allegedly confessed to watching his friend murder his mother and helping him try to conceal the crime, Thomas did not arrest him.
“Well, from the statement that he gave, he didn’t really implement [implicate] himself as doing the shooting. He put it on Vidale. So then I decided at that point that there is nothing criminal here that I have — I didn’t believe him, but I’m going to let him go, and he had been there for a while,” testified Thomas.
Metro Times asked Antoine and his father whether they discussed the eight-page statement after they left police headquarters that night; both said they hadn’t. Ennis Morris said both were exhausted and his son fell asleep in the car on the way home and went directly to bed that night.
Interviewed at home, Antoine told Metro Times he didn’t actually read the eight-page statement that he had signed.
“I didn’t know what it said. I was confused,” said Antoine.
Asked if he understood that the statement implicated both McDowell and himself, Antoine said he didn’t. “They said I could go home if I talked to them. I just wanted out of there. I was crying in there and everything. I was terrified.”
The day after Antoine’s eight-plus hour grilling, police instructed Ennis Morris to bring his son in for a polygraph examination. The father testified that, at the time, he still had not been told that his son had said he watched McDowell murder Williams.
Officer Andrew Sims was to administer the polygraph. Polygraphs are used as investigative tools; test results are not admissible in court.
Antoine and his father both signed forms consenting to the polygraph examination and how it was to be administered, according to court records. They also understood that policy precluded Ennis Morris from being present during the exam.
Sims testified that he informed Antoine that he would ask him some questions, then administer the test. But Antoine confessed again before the polygraph was administered, testified Sims, who then asked the boy to put his statement in writing.
The officer asked the father to read and sign it. Ennis Morris testified that this was the first time he was made aware that Antoine was claiming to have witnessed the murder. The father refused to sign the statement.
Sims testified that he knew Antoine had given police two other statements containing “conflicting information.”
However, Sims didn’t bother to test Antoine to see which, if any, of the statements were true, according to his own testimony. Neither Sims nor any other officer would ever polygraph Antoine.
Sims also conceded that the form Ennis Morris signed, permitting his son to take a polygraph, did not authorize the officer to take a statement from Antoine.
According to the department policy in place at the time, “If during the examination the subject makes an oral admission or confession, the investigator (officer in charge of the case) should obtain a written admission or confession after completion of the examination.”
Sims testified that the policy did not apply to him because he was not in charge of the case.
He also testified that he spent about three hours with Antoine, with more than half that time spent interrogating the boy.
Sims said that Antoine initially told him he neither murdered his mother nor knew who had. But by the time Sims was through with him, Antoine had changed his story.
“I told him that I didn’t believe he was just upstairs sleeping [while] several shots [were] being fired in the house, a lot of damage that was done to the house. He then said he would tell me the truth,” testified Sims.
Lions and panthers
According to the one-page confession written on Feb. 26, 2002, Antoine said that after he let McDowell into his home, an argument ensued between his friend and mother. He said McDowell “pulled a gun and shot at her then he gave me the gun and I shot twice and missed.”
The confession says that Antoine gave the gun back to McDowell, who shot Williams two more times before she fell down the basement stairs. That’s when McDowell said, “Twan get the knife,” according to Antoine’s statement. “Then he went down the stairs and cut her. I did not do no stabbing or cutting,” the confession states.
The statement says that McDowell cut a window screen, hit the back door with a sledgehammer, knocked over the fish tank in Antoine’s bedroom and cut the telephone line.
“Then [McDowell] told me to go in the house [and] go upstairs and go to sleep … we did all that so it could look like a break-in murder,” states the confession.
Antoine testified that Sims told him what to write, and that he complied because Sims threatened to send him to jail.
“He said, ‘I need you to say that you seen what happened, what went on that night,’” testified Antoine.
Sims denied telling Antoine what to write.
“I wasn’t even in the room” when the boy was writing the confession, testified Sims.
Antoine said Sims asked him some bizarre questions.
“… [Sims] said, ‘Do you want to be a lion or a panther? A panther is a vicious killer, it go through the jungle killing animals just licking their blood … or do you want to be a lion who just sit in the den all day hungry and jump on the female lion and have her to go out and kill, and then he eat the meat and sit in the den with his belly hanging?’” Antoine testified.
Antoine said he told the officer he didn’t understand, and Sims replied, “The panther is a person who they going to keep locked up and not give another chance and the lion is the person who they going to give another chance to.’ And I said, ‘Well, I want to be the lion,’” Antoine testified.
Antoine also testified that Sims told him he would be able to go home with his father after he signed and dated the statement.
Antoine said that when his father came into the room and read the statement, he asked whether it was true. Antoine testified that he responded, “I’ll tell you when I get home.”
But Antoine didn’t go home. He would be charged with first-degree murder and stay in detention for 15 months.
Another recanted confession
The Janice Williams murder case is not the first time Andrew Sims elicited a confession that was later recanted.
On Sept. 1, 2001, Michael Gayles was arrested for allegedly raping and murdering a 12-year-old girl. Gayles, then 18, suffers from a learning disability, “resulting in a mental age significantly less than his actual years,” according to a federal lawsuit he and his mother later filed.
The lawsuit claimed that when Gayles was questioned, “no adult representatives were present” and that he was deprived of food and sleep.
The police took numerous statements from Gayles, including one that said his mother washed the blood off her son and disposed of his bloody clothes; his mother was arrested as an accessory to the crime.
During a sworn deposition, Sims, who administered the polygraph, told Gayles’ attorney, Brian Kutinsky, that he was never told that the young man had a learning disability. He testified that Gayles had no trouble understanding the test or reading the polygraph consent forms.
Sims testified that Gayles originally told him that he did not commit the murder. But more than two hours later, Gayles wrote a statement saying he had murdered the girl, testified Sims.
Kutinsky asked Sims what had caused Gayles to change his story.
“Nothing, there was just the polygraph and I told him I don’t believe that,” testified Sims.
Asked about the results of Gayles’ polygraph test, Sims testified, “He was deceptive.”
Kutinsky asked Sims if he helped Gayles write the statement. “No, I was never in the room [when he wrote the statement],” testified Sims.
The city tried to have the lawsuit dismissed, but U.S. District Court Judge Marianne Battani denied the motion, writing, “By the end of the interrogation process, Gayles had given three separate statements. The first, dated September 1, 2000, at 12:55 a.m., was written by Gayles and is practically unintelligible.”
The statement says, “I Michael have sex to her she leave me in the said door me and her sit down and take for a well that she starte to take her clorsene out and she take me to have sex went her that she scream and I aslonders hit her in the head.”
Judge Battani wrote, “Gayles maintains that the officer in charge of the interrogation, Defendant Andrew Sims, told him what to write.”
DNA evidence later exonerated Gayles. In September 2002, the actual murderer was caught and convicted.
The city settled the Gayles case last year for $800,000.
Kutinsky, who has filed similar lawsuits against other officers and is representing McDowell in a civil suit filed last month against Sims, Thomas and others, said, “They don’t care about guilt or innocence. They have heavy caseloads. They want to close their cases.”
Unlike the Gayles case, DNA evidence did not clear Antoine Morris or Vidale McDowell of the crime. Neither did it prove their guilt.
For more than a year, police failed to test fingernail clippings taken from Williams. Neither the prosecution nor the defense learned that the clippings had been taken until McDowell’s trial was under way.
At trial, Cheryl Loewe, the Wayne County assistant medical examiner who conducted the autopsy on Williams’ body, testified that the fingernail clippings had been “picked up by homicide detectives and taken to the crime lab.”
Asked if she was certain the clippings were provided to detectives, Loewe testified, “It is in the report that they were taken, the samples were taken.”
Det. Thomas testified at trial, “I had no clue that the fingernails were taken from [Williams], none at all.”
McDowell’s attorney Jeffery Taylor then asked the detective, “And when you reviewed your file and you saw that note saying the hands were going to be processed, and you only received bullets, did you then take it upon yourself to inquire of the medical examiner’s office, as to what the results of the hands being processed were, one way or the other?”
“If there wasn’t anything coming back, there was no evidence found, that’s what I would assume,” testified Thomas.
“You made an assumption,” Taylor said.
“Yes,” Thomas said.
By the end of the trial, the prosecution had the fingernail clippings tested, but no human hair or skin was found. Blood was detected, but the chemist who conducted the analysis testified that he could not say whose it was. The chemist said tests to determine blood type or DNA could not have been completed before he was scheduled to testify.
Those tests still have not been done; McDowell could have the clippings tested as part of his appeal, says Taylor, who questions whether the clippings are even Williams’.
“The medical examiner testified that she returned the nails to the police. But more than a year later they say, ‘Oh, here are the nails at the morgue.’ I’m not convinced what they tested were her fingernails,” says Taylor.
The fingernail clippings are not the only evidence that might have been mishandled.
Terry Thompson testified at trial that when he was taken to police headquarters the night of the murder, the police took samplings from his clothing, shoes, coat, face and hands for a gunpowder residue test.
However, William Steiner, a forensic chemist at the police department crime lab, testified at trial that he only received samplings from Thompson’s jacket lapel, hands, forehead and face, all of which tested negative.
Steiner said the samplings were taken at 7:45 a.m., at least seven hours after the murder. “It would be unusual to find residue on a living person under their skin longer than approximately six hours after a shooting,” he testified.
Steiner testified that exposure to water would also decrease chances of finding gunpowder residue. Thompson and Thomas both testified that it was raining the night of the murder.
Steiner tested samplings taken from the inside of Thompson’s Ford Tempo, which was impounded the night of the murder. According to Steiner’s testimony, gunpowder residue was found on the front passenger seat and ceiling. The test on Thompson’s car was completed May 17, 2002 — 10 weeks after McDowell had been arrested.
At trial, Thomas testified that Thompson had told him, “he didn’t know how the [gunpowder residue] got there.”
About six weeks after the murder, Steiner also conducted gunpowder tests on a coat belonging to Vidale McDowell. Steiner testified that he tested the entire jacket and found that the cuffs and front pockets had gunpowder residue on them.
Thomas testified that — without a search warrant — he took McDowell’s coat from him when he was brought in for questioning and that it was handled with “gloves.”
According to the crime lab report, police headquarters did not send the coat for testing for about two weeks.
McDowell told Metro Times that the day after he was arrested and taken into custody, Thomas questioned him at police headquarters. McDowell said that he was wearing the coat at the time and “He [Thomas] said, ‘That’s a nice coat. Take it off.’” McDowell said Thomas put it on and said, “I’m keeping it.”
McDowell said the detective was not wearing gloves when he handled his jacket. After Thomas took off the jacket he hung it on a rack and did not return it, McDowell said.
Thompson testified that the assailant wore a navy blue pea coat. But McDowell’s coat is a black leather shearling with light-colored trim and lapel, according to Steiner, who tested it.
McDowell said that Thomas promised to let him go if he admitted to murdering Williams. When he refused, McDowell said, Thomas threatened him.
“He said I’m going away forever,” said McDowell.
The only physical evidence linking McDowell to Williams’ murder is gunpowder residue found on McDowell’s coat six weeks after the crime.
Though police said that Williams and her assailant had struggled in the kitchen, where there was much blood, no blood was found on either boy or their clothes.
Police never found the murder weapon, and they found no fingerprints on the razor blade, sledgehammer and knives at the scene.
Two boot prints found behind the house did not match McDowell’s. However, one print partially matched Antoine’s, according to Steiner, who evaluated them. Antoine did not mention going outside in either confession. However, Sims testified at trial that Antoine told him that he had loaned McDowell his boots so he could go outside and cut the phone wire. The trouble with this assertion is that McDowell wears a size 10 shoe; Antoine wears a size 8 1/2, according to court records. Nobody provided any testimony explaining why McDowell wouldn’t have been wearing his own boots.
Sims had testified three times in pretrial proceedings, but never mentioned Antoine’s boot-loaning claim until his trial testimony.
The boot detail was not Sims’ only assertion that emerged at trial. The most inflammatory was that Antoine had told him that McDowell handed Antoine the gun and ordered him to “Shoot the bitch.”
According to the autopsy report, Williams had six bullet wounds; one bullet apparently caused two wounds. The confession Antoine wrote in Sims’ presence said McDowell shot her twice. It also says that Antoine shot at her and missed. The apparent discrepancy between the number of shots fired and the number of wounds on Williams’ body did not bother Sims.
“That doesn’t concern me at all,” he testified. “Once someone tells me they shot someone, I’m not concerned if they shot them once or 10 times. That’s the detective’s job … to come up with that.”
Thomas seemed similarly unconcerned about inconsistencies. In his first confession, Antoine said he and McDowell talked on the phone at about 9:35 p.m., and that McDowell came over shortly thereafter and murdered Williams. But according to phone records obtained by McDowell’s attorney, there was no such call.
Thomas testified at trial that he never attempted to obtain Williams’ phone records to check the veracity of Antoine’s statement.
Williams’ phone records show she was still alive at 11:10 p.m. when Thompson called her from a pay phone. They show that her daughter, Markita, called at 10:30 p.m. that night.
When Thompson called 911 on the night of the murder, Thompson never said he saw anyone. Police reports contain no mention of Thompson telling the first officers on the scene that he had seen anyone or heard anything. However, in the statement Thompson gave a month after the murder, he said he saw the assailant, who had a fair complexion, wore a dark coat and said, “Twan, get the knife.”
In his February statement, Thompson claimed that he was in the basement laundry room when he saw the assailant, and that he then hid behind the furnace. According to a diagram of the basement drawn by an evidence technician, Thompson would have moved into plain view of the murderer, who would have stood about 10 feet away, to get from the laundry room to the furnace.
The night of the murder, when Thompson was questioned downtown, Sims administered a polygraph test. Sims asked four questions: “Do you know for sure who stabbed Janice Williams? Did you shoot or stab Janice Williams? Are you the one who shot or stabbed Janice Williams? Did you plan or participate with anyone to shoot or stab Janice Williams?” Thompson answered “No” to each of the questions.
According to the report Sims wrote, “[I]t is the opinion of the examiner that the subject is not being truthful regarding this issue.”
Thomas, after initially telling Metro Times that Thompson had passed the polygraph, admitted that he hadn’t. He then said, “We cleared him through the investigation.”
Thomas testified at trial that Antoine was a suspect from the beginning, though he never tested him for gunpowder residue.
Thomas did not believe Antoine’s story that he slept through his mother’s murder. “When they told me that the juvenile was in the house upstairs asleep, and I’m looking at the marks on his door, how it appeared that they hit this door at least four to five times with something heavy and then the window was smashed out, you know, I had a problem with the sound and the juvenile not hearing it,” testified Thomas.
But Thomas didn’t know that Antoine has trouble hearing. When he was sent to the juvenile detention center, Antoine failed a hearing test, his father testified. Antoine’s probation officer wrote on Dec. 17, 2003, “Antoine also has attended a follow-up appointment with an ear, nose and throat physician to address his hearing troubles. Antoine indicated that the doctor discussed surgery for his ear and sinuses …”
Reports in Antoine’s juvenile file are all positive. In a December report, his probation officer wrote that she had “no problems to report,” Antoine’s urine screens were negative for drugs and he attended therapy.
Reports from his detention center teachers also were good. “Antoine continues to be one of my best students. He completes every assignment and often assists his peers. Antoine’s grade to date: A,” wrote a math teacher.
“Antoine is an excellent student who completes all assignments. He is very respectful to staff and peers and always behaves responsibly,” wrote his prevocational skills teacher, who gave him an A.
When Antoine was in the detention center awaiting trial, he wrote two letters to McDowell, who was in Wayne County Jail. An Oct. 29, 2002, letter stated, “Man what the judge said to me is making me sick[.] I been crying ever since. Man I don’t get nothing they be saying in court[.] [W]hat about you[?] [D]o you get the stuff they be saying in court[?] … Man, I want to go home. I can’t believe the judge don’t see this. That the people who did it is still out.”
In another letter to McDowell, Antoine wrote, “I wish my mom was still alive because she could tell who did this and we can get out.”
In a letter Antoine wrote after he was released from the detention center, he apologized: “Dog[,] I’m sorry I got us into this shit[.] I think about this shit every night. I was listening to a song that b[r]ought back memories of my mom and you to me. Which made me start thinking harder. But remember that my dad and me are here for you. … But you will be getting out really soon and the[y] will and better find the real person who did it. … But them police know we did not have anything to do with it.”
Antoine signed it, “Love always[,] your little brother[,] Antoine[,] a.k.a. Twan.”
McDowell told Metro Times that he holds no grudge against Antoine. He said he and Antoine call each other “god brothers.”
McDowell said he and Antoine have been friends six or so years; they met through their mothers, who were friends; the families lived across the street from each other.
“We were together every day,” McDowell said of Antoine. “We did family activities. He used to go to my grandma’s house. I went to his birthday party.”
He said both boys got along with Antoine’s mother, a full-time employee of Verizon Wireless. “We used to go to Target a lot, me, him and his momma,” said McDowell.
When Markita Williams was asked if her mother allowed McDowell to spend time with her brother, she testified, “Yes. But, she really didn’t approve of it, but yes.”
McDowell testified that Williams never told him that he could not spend time with Antoine unless Antoine was being punished for misbehaving.
Markita testified that when Williams punished her son by depriving him of McDowell’s company, McDowell did not disobey those orders.
McDowell’s stepfather testified at trial that his son was home in bed on the night of the murder.
Thompson has no police record. Asked to explain how the residue got into his car, Thompson told Metro Times that his car was unlocked the night of the murder. “The boys could have gotten into it,” he said.
Thompson told Metro Times that he gave only one statement to police and, incredibly, that he didn’t remember taking a polygraph test, though police records show he failed one.
No polygraph test was administered to Hudgens, Williams’ ex-husband. In 1996, Hudgens was put on probation for 90 days and was ordered to pay $114 in restitution for damaging a building.
Hudgens and Williams had a contentious relationship, records show. In 2000, Hudgens was granted a Personal Protective Order (PPO) against Williams. According to court records, Hudgens wrote that on June 5, 2000, Williams left a profane message on his voice mail and that “She would kill me if I threaten her again.” Hudgens claimed that he had never threatened Williams.
“In the past, Janice [Williams] has broke the window out of my house and truck. She has attacked me with a stun gun. Her and her two other children have drawn knives on me.”
Days after Hudgens petitioned the court for the PPO in June 2000, Williams filed a motion to terminate it. Williams claimed that it was Hudgens who had threatened to kill her.
“I told him, ‘I don’t appreciate you threatening my life, but I tell you one thing you ball head black mother fucker, if you ever put your hands on me again, I [will] kill your ass.’ … Your honor, that’s how that conversation went. I was hurt and upset but I’ll never do no harm to no one.”
Williams petitioned the court for a PPO against Hudgens in August 2000, claiming Hudgens had twice threatened to kill her. But she failed to show for court and the judge denied the petition.
On Jan. 28, 2002, four days after the murder, Williams’ friend and co-worker, Jennifer Wilcox, told police that Williams had told her she had received a phone call two weeks before her murder from “this guy who told her that, ‘The word is that George [Hudgens] is going to have your head.’” Wilcox said Williams told her “that she ought to do him before he does her.”
Hudgens told Metro Times, “I didn’t have any feelings about wanting to hurt Janice. I would run from her before I would fight with her.”
Holloman, who told the police he was in bed on the night of the murder, has a record.
In May 2003, he was sentenced to 180 days in Macomb County Jail and five years’ probation for delivery and manufacturing less than 50 grams of a controlled substance, according to court records.
In 2002, Kimberly Stampley, who has a child with Holloman, petitioned the court for a PPO, records show. Stampley wrote, “On Saturday, September 21,  Jasper [Holloman] forced himself into my home and slapped and hit me. On September 24, he also scratched my car hood.”
In 2000, Stampley petitioned the court for another PPO, stating, “This man Jasper Lorenzo Holloman has been stalking me for the last five years and on May 3, 2000, he chased my car down through the street and broke the window.”
In 1998, Holloman was charged with aggravated stalking of Stampley, but she refused to testify, records show.
In 1997, Holloman was charged with assault and battery for punching a man in the face and breaking a window in his car. That case was dismissed because the alleged victim decided not to proceed.
In 1997, Holloman was charged with carrying a concealed weapon, according to court records. The arresting officer said, “I believe it was a 9 mm.” Holloman was acquitted of the charge at a bench trial.
In 1996, he was charged with causing more than $100 in property damage and violating a PPO that Stampley had obtained. But the case was dismissed because Stampley did not want to go forward with the case.
Holloman told Metro Times that he has never carried a gun and was never charged with carrying a concealed weapon. “I don’t even believe in guns. I don’t shoot guns,” he said.
Holloman denied having any physical altercations with Williams.
“No. She wanted me to move in with her and I wasn’t ready for that,” said Holloman.
When Holloman was asked how police verified that he was home in bed on the night of the murder, he said, “I don’t know, unless my next door neighbor was home.”
Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Ulysses Boykin presided over the first-degree murder trial of Antoine Morris and Vidale McDowell.
Before the trial began, he ruled — over defense objections — that the second confession Antoine wrote in Sims’ presence could be admitted at trial. McDowell’s attorney appealed Boykin’s ruling, but the court wouldn’t hear the issue.
Boykin ruled Antoine’s pretrial testimony, in which he stated his confessions were bogus, could not be presented to the jury.
Boykin declared Antoine competent to stand trial and determined that both defendants would have one jury.
Before the trial began, the prosecution made Antoine plea offers. But Antoine’s father and his attorney advised against it.
On the first day of trial, in April 2003, after opening statements had begun, the prosecution offered Antoine another deal: to plead no contest to being an accessory after the fact, which would result in probation and release from the detention center. And he would not be required to testify against his friend at trial.
Antoine refused the deal, on the advice of his father and lawyer.
After Ennis Morris and Antoine’s attorney both balked at the prosecution’s offer, the judge appointed a guardian ad litem to advise Antoine to take the prosecution’s offer.
Boykin’s appointment of the guardian stunned the defense attorneys and Ennis Morris. They were particularly confounded that the judge ruled Antoine competent to stand trial but not competent to decide whether to accept a plea bargain.
Taylor was outraged.
He noted that Antoine was supposedly the only witness to the murder, but “the prosecution didn’t want him to testify — in a capital case. It didn’t make sense.”
Without Antoine’s testimony at trial, Taylor could not impeach the credibility of the confession.
“The Constitution says that the accused has a right to confront their accuser,” Taylor said. “I can’t cross-examine a piece of paper.”
McDowell’s appeal for a new trial is based on the judge’s decision to admit the confession.
University of Detroit Law School professor Larry Dubin said, “In the Michigan and U.S. Constitution an accused has the constitutional right to confront witnesses who offer testimony against him.”
However, if it can be shown that the statement is reliable, the right to confront is not violated, said Dubin. What the high court must decide is whether Antoine’s confession is reliable, he says.
“The Court of Appeals will likely have some concerns about whether this statement was made to law enforcement officials at their behest, whether the statement was made to shift responsibility to the defendant and whether the accomplice had a motive to distort the truth,” said Dubin.
Steven Drizin, the false-confession expert, says juries convict defendants who have falsely confessed in four out of five cases.
“Jurors are unable to determine whether or not a confession is true or false and unable to overcome their bias that no defendant would ever confess to a crime he didn’t commit,” Drizin says. “So the decision with regard to the plea and admission of evidence effectively deprived McDowell any chance to defend himself at trial.”
Drizin, who has studied hundreds of cases, says false confessions have similar traits. He says Antoine’s written statement made in Sims’ presence is not unique.
“This confession bears many of the indicia that I have studied,” said Drizin. “First, there is little or no corroboration by the evidence in the case. There is no gun. The 13-year-old recanted almost immediately and the circumstances under which the confession was taken, a lengthy interrogation outside the presence of a parent or guardian by at least one [officer] that was linked to at least one false confession involving a mentally deficient teenager, sends off all alarms here.”
Drizin said Antoine’s interrogators employed a tactic called “minimization.”
“Minimization is when police officers offer a suspect a face-saving excuse for committing the crime or an explanation of the crime which paints it either as an accident or as a less heinous version of what occurred,” Drizin said. “In other words, you didn’t mean to kill your mom, you were forced by Vidale. You didn’t shoot your mom, you missed.
“The suggestion that Antoine did not hit his mother and missed her and [bullets] went into the broom closet is evidence that minimization was used.”
Drizin also found the plea agreement disturbing.
“The normal course is to require the witness to testify in exchange for leniency,” said Drizin. “The fact that this plea enabled Antoine to escape testifying about the contents of his confession suggests that the prosecutor was afraid that Antoine would recant when he took the stand.”
Antoine did not take the stand; testifying may have jeopardized his plea agreement and sentence.
After a three-day trial and about five hours of deliberations, the jury concluded that the murder was not premeditated and convicted McDowell of second-degree murder. He is serving a life sentence.
“I think justice was served in this case,” says Det. Thomas. “People of the State of Michigan came back with a verdict. It’s a sad case. You have families. Everyone loses. Not a happy occasion where the police won. No one won. There is always going to be doubt because no one wants to believe this happened. Sometimes the police are the bad guys. But I stand by my badge. The Detroit Police Department is one of the best. You can’t find a better unit. We’ll just keep being the professionals we are.”Ann Mullen is a Metro Times staff writer. She can be reached at 313-202-8015 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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