Freedom, finally

Aug 6, 2008 at 12:00 am

The Detroit News and the Free Press both have stories in Wednesday's papers about Gov. Granholm's commutation of Kylleen Hargrave-Thomas, a Wixom woman sentenced to life in prison for the 1991 murder of boyfriend Manuel Joe Bernal.

Of the two stories, the News' does a better job of explaining why Hargrave-Thomas deserved to be set free. But if you really want to get a full understanding of the injustice done to Hargrave-Thomas, check out "Hanging by a nail," our cover story by Katie Merx about the case back in 2001. Hargrave-Thomas was accused of stabbing Bernal in the heart with a steak knife and then setting fire to his Westland house in an attempt to conceal the crime.

As the Freep explains, commutation is different than a pardon, which "excuses or forgives the crime." Under commutation, Hargrave-Thomas will be released on probation and her record won't be erased. She'd previously sought clemency, but was turned down by Granholm in 2005. The family of the victim was quoted in the dailies asserting their belief that the former dental hygienist murdered Bernal and should remain behind bars. But the evidence that Hargrave-Thomas got a raw deal is compelling.

So compelling, in fact, that U.S. District Judge Paul Gadola released her from prison in 2002 after ordering a new trial. She went back behind bars in 2006 when the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned that decision.

In 2001, Merx talked with attorney Andrea Lyon, director of the Center for Justice in Capital Cases at DePaul University's law school. Lyon, working with law students, investigated the case and found much reason to believe Hargrave-Thomas had been unjustly convicted. As Merx wrote at the time: "According to Lyon, Hargrave-Thomas was convicted on the flimsiest of evidence: a broken fingernail of questionable importance, a witness' fleeting glance as two cars passed in the dark, and some ‘minor' inconsistencies in Hargrave-Thomas' story."

Also called into question was the job done by defense counsel Rene Cooper. Lyon asserted in court filings that Cooper failed to perform "the most basic responsibilities required by a defense attorney." Among other things, Lyon said, Cooper never called a single witness on behalf of her client. Particularly egregious was Cooper's failure to introduce the testimony of a witness who claimed to have seen a man wearing a police uniform standing outside Bernal's home around the time the crime was committed, but hours before the arson had been reported to the fire department.

Instead of being represented by an attorney who took advantage of ample opportunity to raise reasonable doubt about her guilt, Lyon argued, Hargrave-Thomas "could only sit and watch her freedom slip away as her trial counsel did nothing to defend her."

That freedom, finally, will be returned to her when she is released from the Robert Scott Correctional facility on Sept. 2.