Instead of spending the rest of his life in prison for a murder he says he did not commit, Vidale McDowell returned to his Detroit home Monday after more than two years in prison.
“It feels good to be out,” said McDowell, now 20, who has maintained his innocence since his arrest.
“I think it was unfair … they didn’t give me a good trial. I was wrongly convicted for nothing, and they took two and a half years of my life for something I didn’t do.”
Key to McDowell’s second-degree murder conviction was a controversial confession from his friend, Antoine Morris, who told investigators that he helped McDowell kill Antoine’s mother, Detroit resident Janice Williams, on Jan. 24, 2002. Antoine, who was 13 at the time, almost immediately recanted that confession, saying it was coerced.
The case was the subject of a Metro Times cover story (“Confessions & recantations,” Jan. 21, 2004) that raised questions about Antoine’s confessions and the Detroit Police Department’s investigation.
The Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office initially charged Antoine with first-degree murder as an adult, but just before the trial offered him an unbelievable deal: He could avoid jail and wouldn’t have to testify against his friend — a transcript of his confession would merely be read to the jury. Antoine and his attorney rejected the deal, insisting that neither teen had murdered Williams. Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Ulysses Boykin then appointed a guardian ad litem, who advised Antoine to take the deal, which he did.
Antoine received probation for being an accessory after the fact. The prosecution wasn’t motivated by leniency toward Antoine; it didn’t want him to testify, because if he had, he would have told the jury that police had coerced a false confession from him. Nonetheless, Boykin allowed Antoine’s statement to be read to the jury; he also denied a request from McDowell’s attorney to put Antoine on the stand.
McDowell appealed his conviction, claiming he was denied his constitutional right to face his accuser in court. While that appeal was pending, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on a similar case, coming down firmly on the side of Sixth Amendment protections and the argument presented by McDowell. In May, following the Supreme Court decision, the Michigan Court of Appeals reversed McDowell’s conviction.
Last week, the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office decided not to seek a new trial.
“My [wedding] anniversary is tomorrow — this is the best present I could ever get,” McDowell’s mother, Monica Thomas, said Friday.
McDowell sued the City of Detroit and two police officers in U.S. District Court last year; the case was dismissed in March until McDowell’s appeal was resolved, said his civil lawyer, Brian Kutinsky, who will likely file a motion to reinstate the case. Antoine’s father, Ennis Morris, said he also plans to sue on his son’s behalf. He too maintained from the outset that his son and McDowell had nothing to do with the murder.
“It’s wrong what the police have done,” said Morris.
Calls to the Detroit Police Department seeking comment were not returned. Detective Derryck Thomas, the lead investigator on the case, didn’t respond to requests for comment.
“Going to prison was like a nightmare,” says McDowell, who plans to complete his high school education and spend time with his family. “I just thank the Lord for clearing this up and giving me a second chance.”
Antoine was not the only one in the house the night his mother was shot and stabbed to death. Also there was Janice Williams’ friend, Terry Thompson, who came over that evening at about 11 p.m. and was smoking marijuana with Williams in the basement, police reports say. But the police cleared Thompson of the crime.
Last year, Metro Times asked Detective Thomas why police had cleared Thompson. Thomas responded that Thompson had passed a polygraph test and a gunpowder residue test when police records show otherwise — Thompson failed the polygraph test, and gunpowder residue was detected in his car, according to police reports. When Metro Times told Thomas that Thompson had in fact failed the polygraph test administered by Detroit police and showed him the results, Thomas said, “Oh yeah, he sure did.”
Despite that, the detective signed a sworn affidavit in a civil case this year claiming that Thompson had passed his polygraph exam. The department has yet to respond to Metro Times’ request for an explanation of Thomas’ affidavit. (The affidavit was filed in a federal lawsuit over Williams’ life insurance proceeds.)
Thomas had Antoine and McDowell arrested before he obtained the results of the gunpowder residue test on Thompson’s car, which came back positive. The detective said he based his assessment on the fact that Antoine claimed to have slept through the gunfire and other mayhem on the night of the murder. What Thomas apparently didn’t know is that Antoine failed a hearing test while in a juvenile detention facility; a medical report said he needed surgery.
There were other reasons to doubt the guilt of McDowell and Antoine.
Though police records indicate that Williams fought her assailant — the kitchen was spattered with blood — no blood was found on the teens, nor was a firearm found. The only physical evidence linking the boys to the crime was McDowell’s coat, which had gunpowder residue on the cuffs and a pocket. But even that was suspect. Thomas took the coat from McDowell, who was wearing it the day he was brought in for questioning a month after the murder. The prosecutions’ own expert testified that gunpowder residue would not remain on clothing that long.
Antoine agreed to take a polygraph test earlier this year. The results show that he is “truthful” about not being involved in his mother’s death.
Investigators did not aggressively pursue other suspects, including Williams’ ex-husband, George Hudgens, who was living next door when she was murdered. The night Williams was killed, the police asked Antoine if he knew of anyone who would want to harm his mother. Antoine named Hudgens and said Hudgens and his mother had fought over the custody of their daughter, Jazzane, and that Hudgens had threatened to kill Williams, according to a police report. Williams’ daughter, Markita Williams, also told police that Hudgens and her mother fought.
Hudgens told police he was with another woman the night of the murder. No records indicated whether police ever checked out Hudgens’ alibi.
Hudgens told Metro Times that he and Williams had not fought and that the custody battle over their daughter had been settled before her death.
But the custody battle was far from resolved.
“There was always friction,” said attorney Rodrick Green, whom the court appointed Jazzane’s guardian ad litem to resolve visitation disputes. “That’s why I was involved. They couldn’t resolve it.”
Green said the couple may have had joint custody on paper, but he was to monitor them and ensure each “got their fair share” of time with Jazzane.
Attorney Donald Mbamah, who represented Williams, recently told Metro Times that Williams wanted full custody of her daughter.
Mbamah says he was on the “verge” of filing a motion for Williams to obtain full custody. But days before an appointment with Mbamah, Williams was murdered.
Mbamah says he does not know if Hudgens knew of Williams’ plans.
Markita Williams also told police that her mother fought with a lover, 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.
Holloman told Metro Times earlier this year that he and Williams had never fought. A police report says Holloman was home in bed the night of the murder.
If McDowell and Antoine did not kill Williams, then the murderer is still at large. Will Detroit police reopen their investigation? That question, for the moment, remains unanswered.Ann Mullen is a Metro Times staff writer and can be reached at 313-202-8015 or [email protected]