How an alleged snitch scheme led Detroit police to wrongly land dozens behind bars

click to enlarge How an alleged snitch scheme led Detroit police to wrongly land dozens behind bars
Stephen William Schudlich

The night 18-year-old Bernard Howard was hauled into Detroit police headquarters he was unequivocal: He knew nothing. Police had heard a man nicknamed "Snoop" — something Howard's friend on the east side called him — might've been involved in a triple homicide, but Howard was clear: He didn't know a thing. So he was released. Three days later, when officers brought him downtown again, they'd changed their tune. He was being held overnight for murder.

That was July 1994. At the time, Howard was a young man with a family to take care of and a prospective job at a General Motors plant in the works.

But instead of working on a car production line he has been imprisoned ever since, fighting a murder conviction that he maintains was manufactured by Detroit police and an enterprising jailhouse informant.

More than that, Howard and defense attorneys in similar cases say that he wasn't alone in suffering his fate; that police and this informant led prosecutors astray and potentially landed dozens of innocent Detroit men behind bars — or secured convictions that would not have happened otherwise.

"The whole case was fabricated against me from inside 1300 [Detroit police headquarters]," Howard told me in an interview at the Michigan state prison he has resided in for years. "Nothing came from the crime scene."

Detroit has a history rankled by violence, and 1994 was no exception. There were 541 homicides that year in a city with a million people — New York City's murder rate was less than half that.

So by then, the directive from City Hall to homicide detectives was crystallized: Close cases, at all costs.

For Howard, there was a sinister twist for the city achieving that goal. Rather than chase down every lead possible, Howard and several prisoners say, Detroit police relied on a few jailhouse informants to close cases for them.

That wasn't clear to Howard when police dragged him into a downtown precinct in the early hours of July 20, 1994. Two detectives placed him in an interrogation room on the fifth floor around 1:30 a.m., handcuffed him to a chair, read him his rights, and bombarded him with questions.

The interrogation dragged on for hours. Officers kept leaving and coming back, convinced Howard had a shred of knowledge about what transpired. Howard tried to remain calm. But in the face of two officers shouting him down about what life in prison would be like, he soon found himself cracking at the seams.

"I told them I had nothing to do with it, and I know nothing about it," Howard said at the Muskegon Correctional Facility in west Michigan. Now 41, Howard — a tall, lanky man with a bald head and a neatly-trimmed goatee — speaks almost imperceptibly, fidgeting with a stack of documents he racked up over time for a murder case he maintains he had no part in.

After hours of questioning, Howard found himself on the department's ninth floor, where inmates were held upon being booked. There, he briefly met a fellow prisoner named Joe Twilley. Though Howard describes their interaction as fleeting, Twilley spun a different narrative to detectives. Howard, Twilley claimed, had admitted to his involvement in the murders.

When Twilley took the stand to testify during a preliminary hearing in the case, Howard said he was stunned to find a man he'd met in passing was pinning him to a grisly killing.

But just as Howard's trial was set to begin in February 1995, prosecutors were airing similar concerns, describing in one memo an apparent ongoing scheme with Detroit police in which jailhouse informants lie "about overhearing confessions" to "obtain police favors." One name to be aware of? Joe Twilley.

The thing is, Howard never knew that prosecutors had concerns about the police department's use of informants — not until long after his conviction.

Howard's story makes for a complex tale, one that the Detroit Police Department and Wayne County Prosecutor's Office, which oversees the city, declined to address directly when asked for comment.

"The use of informants can raise many potential issues and so they are always closely scrutinized," Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy told me in an emailed statement. "Whenever an informant comes forward, first and foremost we must establish whether they are credible, reliable, and if the information can be independently corroborated. If we are not able to do so, the information cannot be used."

Asked if its policy toward jailhouse informants has changed since the 1990s, a spokesperson for Worthy pointed out that the prosecutor's office was described, in memos I obtained through court records about the alleged informants, as being "clearly" against the use of jailhouse informants who received any kind of special consideration by Detroit police.

"It is also noted in the memos that the police did not disclose this [special consideration] to prosecutors at the time," the spokesperson said.

Over the last two decades, Howard has amassed an arsenal of documents that revealed Twilley's name has popped up in several murder cases. Some of the convicts say they never met Twilley, while others, like Howard, say they crossed paths, but their interactions were wholly inoffensive.

Howard's case is further complicated because, after relentless questioning by police, he gave a confession — one he maintains was false and coerced.

That alone could impugn Howard's credibility — indeed, judges have repeatedly declined to accept an appeal because of his statement — but an immense amount of research in recent years has highlighted the phenomenon of false confessions.

For example, one in four people wrongfully convicted and later exonerated by DNA evidence made a false confession, according to the Innocence Project, a nonprofit firm that reviews potential wrongful conviction cases. (In fact, the officer who obtained his confession, Monica Childs, later sued the city as a whistleblower by saying the homicide division had a long-held practice of coercing statements out of suspects, just as Howard said she had with him. The case was eventually settled.)

But in Howard's court filings, it's the alleged over-reliance of jailhouse informants by Detroit police that stands out. After coming across Howard's case, I filed several Freedom of Information Act requests and reviewed the documents he filed in his appeal. What emerged was a scheme that — if true — is paralleled only by the Los Angeles Rampart scandal in the 1990s, as well as an ongoing situation in Orange County, which has been roiled in recent years by an informant problem of its own.

That's because Howard's not alone. There are at least five pending appeals by convicts in Detroit who say they're spending life in prison almost entirely because of Twilley and other informants.

"They became police agents, willing to lie, because they didn't care," said one of the informants, Jonathan Hewitt-El, of Twilley and others linked to the alleged scheme. Hewitt-El is linked to at least three cases in the 1990s but documents show he refused to testify at those trials, instead asserting his Fifth Amendment rights and saying, "it was all a set up."

The alleged scheme, described in hundreds of pages of documents and court files, worked by Detroit police rampantly misusing jailhouse informants — from having them manufacture testimony wholesale with the help and at the behest of homicide cops, to knowingly committing perjury in multiple murder cases.

After jailhouse informants allegedly fabricated testimony to tie suspects to murders, the records indicate, prosecutors were able to bolster cases light on evidence with the newfound testimony, oftentimes securing convictions as they did in Howard's case.

In exchange for their cooperation, two of the informants have said, homicide investigators worked to alter their sentences. And, they added, during their incarceration on the ninth floor, they received whatever they wanted, be it sex, drugs, or food.

Records and interviews suggest dozens of more cases — at least 33 and as many as 100 — were filed during the mid-1990s in Detroit in part due to informant testimony. I identified a dozen cases linked just to Twilley, Hewitt-El and two other informants; of those, five defendants received life sentences and are still fighting their convictions.

In 1994, Howard was 18, enjoying the life of a young man on Detroit's east side. He played basketball, listened to R&B, and, without access to a vehicle, enjoyed carrying his young son on his shoulders wherever they went. At the time, he worked as a janitor at his probation officer's facility after he received a concealed weapon conviction as a juvenile.

Despite this run-in with the law, he had hopes of going to work at a GM plant like some in his family and many in Detroit had done; a good job that put food on the table. He had an uncle and a stepfather who were working to get him a position there, he said.

On July 16 that year, court records show he was dropped off at his friend Jameel Spencer's house, where a group of friends met to hang throughout the night. They walked two houses down to the home of Tyiesha Washington.

From there, until about 2 a.m., it was a typical night of friends drinking and playing cards. According to Spencer's testimony, he left an hour later; Howard stayed at the house with Washington. (The account was later corroborated by Washington, who also said in an affidavit that she was never contacted by Howard's attorney to testify at trial.)

When dawn broke, Howard said he walked back to Spencer's house and fell asleep. In the morning, Spencer mentioned a triple murder that happened across town while they were playing cards.

‘They became police agents, willing to lie, because they didn't care.’

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According to Howard, Spencer mentioned one of the victim's names, Marcus Averitte, and asked, "Isn't that a guy you've known forever?"

"[Averitte] grew up with my family, so he knew me when I was a little boy," Howard said.

According to police, the triple murder that Howard is imprisoned for played out like this: Just after 1 a.m., the aunt of Averitte's girlfriend ReShay Winston stopped by Averitte's house to give her a message from her grandmother. When she arrived, three men were on the porch. She couldn't make out the face of who said it, but the aunt later told police that she believed a man named Kenneth McMullen said her Winston was inside.

Minutes later, after delivering the message, the aunt left.

It's then prosecutors say the men on the porch entered the home and fatally shot Averitte, Winston and a roommate. When officers arrived later, they found the home — which police said was a drug den at the time — trashed, along with Winston's 2-year-old son unharmed.

The following day, Howard willingly went down to the police station for an interview. Detectives were apparently told a guy known as "Snoop" might know something about the murders. That's what Averitte called Howard, and why police reached out.

But it was an innocuous conversation. An officer asked Howard what he knew about the shooting. Nothing, Howard said; he didn't hear about it until Spencer told him earlier in the day. The officer asked if his nickname was "Snoop." Only to Averitte, Howard said, "Everybody else calls me Bernard."

The officer continued: Did he know a guy named Kenneth McMullen?

Howard previously met McMullen through Averitte and often saw him at the house. According to his statement, Howard said McMullen sold drugs for Averitte. Then the interview ended.

It's then that police began to develop a narrative wholly divergent of Howard's initial take on what happened. That's why, three days later, Howard found himself being questioned again.

For eight hours, two homicide detectives drilled him about the case. But Howard adamantly maintained he knew nothing. Around 9:45 a.m on July 20, a separate officer, Monica Childs, entered the room. With her, she brought a calmer demeanor.

"I'm in tears," Howard told me. "I'm telling her I didn't do anything."

According to Howard, Childs explained that McMullen had given police a statement, saying he and a friend, Ladon Salisbury, concocted a scheme with Howard to rob Averitte. The three went over and took $700 and a pound of marijuana from a safe, according to McMullen's statement.

McMullen claimed that while he stood guard, Howard fatally shot Averitte's roommate with a sawed-off shotgun. Salisbury killed the other two — Averitte and his girlfriend ReShay Winston. A few minutes later, they packed a van full of belongings from the house and drove off.

Howard was frozen. McMullen knew he owned a sawed-off shotgun, he told me, so he felt cornered when Childs said the statement had placed him at the scene. (McMullen, at trial, said his statement was coerced.)

So, Howard told me, Childs offered a solution: Sign a statement of your own, and you'll be released. If he didn't, the officer said, McMullen will lie and put the case on him. Howard said that he went through details proffered by Childs, who wrote out the statement, which he signed without reading it over.

Childs told Howard his mother was outside waiting for him. After hours of relentless questioning, he felt drained. He didn't think twice about it.

"I felt that was the only option I had to get out of there," he said.

What Howard — who had a ninth grade education and says he was functionally illiterate at the time — didn't fully grasp was the enormity of the situation: He had just signed a confession admitting his involvement in the triple murder.

Childs immediately reversed course, Howard said. Instead of being released, Howard said she told him that he needed to be held overnight at the police department's headquarters in downtown Detroit. (Multiple attempts to reach Childs were unsuccessful.)

"I didn't know nothing," he told me. "I didn't even know the amount of trouble I was in."

Despite that concealed weapon conviction as a juvenile, Howard said that it didn't provide any insight into the situation he now found himself in. "I went straight to the juvenile [court], and then I went to boot camp" back then, he said. Nothing like this before.

And yet several inconsistencies exist in the statement Howard signed.

Unlike McMullen's version of events that Child cited, in this statement, Howard said he was the lookout, while McMullen and Salisbury fired the fatal shots. What's more, Howard's statement describes the scenario as having taken place in the early hours of Saturday, July 17, not Friday, July 16.

"Who would forget the night they were involved in a triple murder within two days?" Howard said. "That's like tragic... that's not something you just forget or mistake."

Police didn't chase down every lead, either, documents show. Howard's nickname "Snoop" led police to initially question him, but witnesses and Howard said they told detectives about another guy in the neighborhood who also went by Snoop and happened to be dating one of the victims, ReShay Winston, just months before the shooting.

"They went to school together," Winston's aunt Darmetia Bolden, said at trial, clarifying she wasn't talking about Howard.

But an investigator in the case testified at Howard's trial that police didn't interview anyone else who went by Snoop. Only Howard.

Housed on the ninth floor in a facility that could hold about 60 prisoners, Howard came across Joe Twilley, an inmate afforded extra privileges by the detention officers who was serving a sentence while awaiting to testify as a witness in an arson case. As a "trustee," a common role for some inmates in prisons and jails, Twilley was granted extra familial visits, a TV in his cell, and the ability to move about the night floor freely.

For Twilley, the informant role wasn't unusual.

An investigator testified that Twilley assisted Detroit police in more than 20 homicides with first-hand knowledge obtained from inmates.

In return, Twilley was rewarded for his help: A second-degree murder sentence that he had been incarcerated for since 1988 was summarily reduced in 1994.

At the time, court records show, defense attorneys for murder suspects charged as a result of Twilley's statements took note of the peculiar consistency in his narrative: Individuals he'd just met suddenly — and inexplicably — would allegedly make confessions to him about committing violent crimes, again and again. Twilley said in court that he heard 40 to 50 confessions during his stay on the ninth floor. (Efforts to reach Twilley for comment were unsuccessful.)

Despite being warned by defense attorneys about the questionable testimony of the informants, records show the Wayne County Prosecutor's Office continued to pursue murder cases that turned primarily on testimony from jailhouse informants. Just a week before Howard's trial began, for example, a top official in the prosecutor's office warned in a March 1995 memo that the situation "could cause tremendous problems" and lead to "prompt reversal" of cases in which police struck a deal with an informant without telling a prosecutor.

Four sources with inside knowledge of the police department and the prosecutor's office at the time said the concern about the use of informants by Detroit police was prevalent in both organizations. Two sources with knowledge of the police department said Twilley's months-long presence on the ninth floor raised concern internally about the use of jailhouse informants, with one source saying it prompted an internal investigation.

A "full and complete" report was completed, the source said, and "I guarantee you, it got buried."

(In response to several Freedom of Information Act requests, the city of Detroit said that records showing what cases Twilley was involved with is exempt from disclosure. The city quoted me $53,000 to even search for a copy of the report.)

Twilley had a peculiar relationship with top Detroit homicide personnel as well. Records show a lieutenant in the homicide division at the time, Bill Rice, personally went to the judge who oversaw Twilley's murder case and asked for his sentence to be reduced — a highly irregular move. The judge complied and resentenced Twilley before ordering the hearing suppressed. Rice himself was sentenced in 2014 for perjury after prosecutors said he gave false testimony in a hearing for the case of Davontae Sanford, a teenager from Detroit who was charged and later exonerated in a quadruple murder.

The concerns over Detroit's use of jailhouse informants also went all the way up to the county prosecutor at the time, John O'Hair. In a September 1995 letter, a defense attorney warned O'Hair about the apparent scheme. The letter described one particular murder case and conveyed to the prosecutor that an informant — Jonathan Hewitt-El — had recanted his testimony in more than four cases and said he lied at the behest of a homicide personnel.

In an interview, O'Hair told me he doesn't recall the letter. He said that if an informant simply overhears a confession and then passes it along to police, there's not a "real problem there." But, he continued, the practice of directing informants to speak to inmates and glean whatever information they can, or to manufacture wholly fabricated testimony, would be overtly problematic.

But with the number of convicted murderers potentially implicated as a result of the alleged informant scheme, O'Hair said what's described is cause for alarm.

"It's a terrible situation," O'Hair said, "if all of this is true."

About The Author

Ryan Felton

Ryan Felton was born in 1990 and spent the majority of his childhood growing up in Livonia. In 2009, after a short stint at Eastern Michigan University, he moved to Detroit where he has remained ever since. After graduating from Wayne State University’s journalism program, he went on to work as a staff writer...
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