Taken from the National Registry of Exonerations - Link below
At 11:47 p.m. on April 6, 2000, the first 911 call was made reporting a fire burning in a home at 8038 Pasadena Street in Royal Oak Township, Michigan. Firefighters and Oakland County Sheriff’s deputies were able to rescue 39-year-old Marie Dean and four of her children. But five others perished--four of her other children and her niece.
Dean told rescuers that she was awakened by her 13-year-old son Timmothy. Smoke filled the house. She was found lying on the floor near the back of the house, where she had tried to move all of the children. A neighbor crawled under the smoke and searching blindly, he found Dean. After leading her out, the neighbor went back and was able to pull one of the children alive out a window.
By the time the fire was extinguished, Marie Dean, Timmothy, as well as three-year-old Aerius, two-year-old Autumn and four-month-old Sasha had survived. The dead included 10-year-old TaLeigha Dean, her 10-year-old cousin, Michelle Frame, eight-year-old Craig Dean, seven-year-old Aaron Dean and six-year-old Eugene Dean. Dean’s 51-year-old husband, Oliver, was not home at the time.
Oakland County Sheriff’s Department fire investigator James Lehtola investigated the blaze and concluded that it was intentionally set on the enclosed front porch of the home.
A month later, Oliver “Big Mike” Dean died of a heart attack—shattered, friends said, by the loss of life. A reward of $7,000 was offered for information about who was responsible for the fire. Tips came in, but no one was arrested. By August 2000, the reward had been raised to $10,000. Police had a suspect—29-year-old Juwan Deering—and an alleged motive: Oliver Dean had failed to pay for drugs that he obtained from Deering, who lived down the street.
At that point, investigators had a statement from Phillip Turner, an Oakland County jail inmate, who said that in July 2000, he and Deering were in the jail together. During that time, Deering, who was being held on a traffic offense, confessed to setting the blaze, according to Turner. However, Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard told reporters that there was insufficient evidence to bring charges.
On March 3, 2006, nearly six years after the fire, Deering was arrested and charged with five counts of first-degree murder and one count of arson. During the years between the fire and the filing of charges, the sheriff’s department made several requests to bring charges. The prosecutor’s office did not do so.
Sheriff Bouchard and Oakland County Prosecuting Attorney David Gorcyca announced the arrest at a press conference on the vacant lot where the Dean home formerly stood. The lot was marked only by a sign offering the reward for information.
“We’re happy to bring closure to a sad situation,” Bouchard said. He said that Deering had been a suspect from almost the beginning and that his target was Oliver Dean, who wasn’t even at the home the night of the fire.
Gorcyca blamed the delay in bringing charges on a former prosecutor who at the time had assigned the case to an inexperienced prosecutor instead of Gregory Townsend, a veteran prosecutor with experience in handling arson cases.
In July 2006, Deering went to trial in Oakland County Circuit Court. Neighbors testified about seeing the fire. Norman Fitzpatrick, who lived two houses away, was taking out his trash when he stopped to talk to another neighbor, Major Hatcher. Fitzpatrick testified that he looked at a window of the living room of the Dean home that was usually covered with a carpet. He saw smoke and flickering light. He told his wife to call 911 and ran to the house.
Fitzpatrick said he ran onto the porch and banged on the front door, which was hot to the touch. At that moment, the front windows began popping and flames erupted onto the porch. He said he ran to the side of the house and began banging on it.
Alvin Wesson, another neighbor, testified that when he arrived, he heard someone inside the house. He and Fitzpatrick went to the rear porch and, assisted by a police officer, and pulled the back door off the house. Wesson said he went in and came out with Marie Dean. He then went back in and pulled one child out through a window. Wesson testified that the fire “was coming from the middle windows. It was not coming from the porch.”
Hatcher testified that he also saw the fire in the living room window. After telling his wife to call 911, he came to the scene as well. He testified that Fitzpatrick was distraught because he feared that electrical work he had recently performed might have ignited the blaze.
Dorothea Pullen testified that the fire “looked as though it was on the porch.” However, she did not see the fire until after the front windows popped, which would have been after Fitzpatrick had already entered and exited the enclosed porch.
Marvin Craig testified that when he saw the fire, it was at “the front of the Dean house, [on] the porch.” However, he admitted he did not see the fire until after he heard Pullen scream, which was after Fitzpatrick had run onto and off of the porch.
None of the witnesses saw Deering near the house that night.
Phillip Turner testified that he and Deering were in the same cell from July 21 to July 29, 2000. After three days together, Turner said Deering told him he had started a fire that killed five children because “Big Mike” owed him $200 for crack. According to Turner, Deering said he sprayed lighter fluid on the porch to start the fire and heard the “windows pop.”
This was the third case Turner acknowledged that he had testified for the prosecution that someone had confessed to a crime while in jail together. Documents later showed there were more. He claimed he hadn’t received any benefits for his testimony in any of the cases.
Ralph McMorris testified that he and Deering were in the same jail cell in 2003. McMorris said they had been together for only a few hours when Deering told him he sprayed lighter fluid he found on the porch and set the fire. According to McMorris, Deering said he didn’t mean for anyone to die, and that he set the fire because “Big Mike” owed him $50.
Raymond Jeffries testified that he was in jail with Deering sometime in 2000. He said that while Deering never said that he set the house on fire, he “said that if he had things to do over again, five children would be alive today.”
Oakland Sheriff’s Detective David Wurtz testified that none of the informants received any benefits. Deering’s attorney, Arnold Weiner, asked during cross-examination, “And I would assume you didn’t promise them anything for their help?”
“Absolutely not,” Wurtz said. “Other than if they told the truth, we would tell the truth.”
“No promises of leniency?” Weiner asked.
“No,” Wurtz said.
“No promises of early release?”
“And no promises of taking the get out of jail early card?” Weiner asked.
“No sir,” Wurtz said.
“Nothing like that?” Weiner pressed.
“Nothing like that,” Wurtz replied.
“They were simply good, Oakland County Jail citizens attempting to help law enforcement, correct?” Weiner asked.
“Sure, yes,” Wurtz said.
Later, Weiner returned to the subject. “Now you’re telling us that you never promised these individuals any sort of leniency or special favors, or early release, or switch to a different cell, or better meals, or better clothing, or some more visits by friends or relatives, anything out of the ordinary, nothing?”
“Nothing,” Wurtz said.
“Nothing,” Weiner repeated. “And…let’s assume what you are saying is correct, sir. Would it be unreasonable for somebody of these - not of these natures, but of these inmates who have been in jail, if they gave you information? And they - subsequently they got in trouble later on, they could come to you and say, remember what I did for you? How about a favor? Something to that effect? Would that be unreasonable for them to think that way?”
Wurtz said, “Would it be unreasonable for them—” But he was interrupted by an objection by the prosecutor, Gregory Townsend.
After the objection was overruled, Weiner picked up where Wurtz left off: “To come to you or any other law enforcement and say, hey. You know, now it's 2005, or 2006, okay? I’m charged with -if I’m driving and I’m charged with possession of cocaine, I’m charged with retail fraud, I’m charged with writing a bad check. But hey, do me a favor because back in 2003 and 2000, I gave some information to Mr. Wurtz and I solved the biggest unsolved murder case in Oakland County. And do me a favor and talk to him and he’ll tell you that’s what I did. Is that unreasonable for them to think that?”
“Mr. Weiner, I’m not sure,” Wurtz said. “I don’t know how to answer that question. Because they have not done that.”
Arson investigator James Lehtola testified that the fire was intentionally set on the front porch with lighter fluid. He said that to classify a fire as arson, he must first eliminate all other possibilities—yet he admitted that he failed to inspect a weed whacker and a traditional lawn mower on the other side of the porch, which could have been accidental ignition sources.
Although the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standard—a peer-reviewed treatise on fire investigation—was the widely-accepted standard of care in fire investigation, Lehtola testified that it was “still controversial in some aspects.”
Lehtola relied on physical markers that he took as indicators of arson, though such reliance had already been questioned and repudiated by 2006.
Lehtola noted heavy “alligator charring” on the front porch, which he said was significant because it represented a rapid, free-burning fire at that location. Lehtola testified that he determined the point of origin by moving from the area of least damage to the area of most damage because the area with deeper char is “closer to the area of origin.”
Lehtola identified a “sharp line of demarcation,” which he said was “an indicator of a possible involvement of a liquid accelerant.”
He said he found two holes burned through the porch floor—one at the top of the steps and one in front of the door to the home. He told the jury that “the natural progression for a fire is upward and outward,” and that investigators “don't normally expect [fire] to burn a hole in the floor unless it burns there for an extended period of time or there’s some type of fuel that is holding the fire down at floor level.”
As a result, he concluded that the burning into the floor indicated that an accelerant had been used. He testified that flammable substances would make a fire burn faster, meaning that an arson fire would burn more quickly than other fires.
Lehtola said that the fire originated in the south portion of the porch because that area had the most severe burning. Lehtola believed that the electrical circuit and light fixture on the porch posed the only threat of accidental fire ignition, and he concluded that these were not the source. With no accidental cause available, he said the fire was arson.
The defense did not present an arson expert. Another jail inmate testified that Turner had a reputation for dishonesty among inmates.
Darrius Cochran testified that he and Deering had drinks on the night of the fire and then went to Cochran’s grandmother’s home. There, Cochran went upstairs to help his uncle, who needed special care, get into bed. Deering left to go to a gas station to get power steering fluid for his car and returned about 11:55 p.m., Cochran said.
Cochran said Deering then drove him to Cochran’s mother’s house in Royal Oak Township. He said as they turned onto Pasadena Street, they saw smoke and flashing lights at the end of the road, about a half-mile away. They saw Marvetta Dockery, a neighbor of the Dean family, who told them about the fire. Cochran said he was dropped off between midnight and 1 a.m.
Robin Love said that Deering came by her house for a visit about that time. She testified that she could smell alcohol on Deering, but did not smell smoke or lighter fluid.
During his closing argument to the jury, Townsend, the prosecutor, told the jury that none of the jail informants got any benefits. “Mr. Jeffries was out. He came in to testify and he wasn’t in prison and he wasn’t in jail,” Townsend said. “And there is absolutely nothing in the world that we could do for him because he didn’t need anything.”
As for Turner, Townsend declared, “Mr. Turner never received anything for his assistance. Mr. Turner is out there. He came in and testified. He’s not in jail and he’s not in prison. Nothing in the world we can help him with. He came forward and testified anyway….Ralph McMorris. Same thing.”
On August 1, 2006, the jury convicted Deering of five counts of first-degree murder and one count of arson. Deering attempted to say that he was innocent, but Oakland County Circuit Judge Wendy Potts told him to consult with his lawyer before saying anything, and to save his remarks for his appeal. He was then sentenced to life in prison without parole.
The Michigan Court of Appeals affirmed his convictions and sentence in December 2008.
Deering then sought help at the Michigan Innocence Clinic at the University of Michigan Law School. The clinic began investigating in 2009 and took Deering on as a client in 2016. His legal team, led by Imran Syed, co-director of the clinic, sought independent expert reviews of the fire evidence by David Smith and Robert Trenkle. The two fire investigation experts concluded that the initial fire investigation by Lehtola relied on outdated science, and that a proper review of the evidence indicates that the fire likely started inside the house—as witnesses had testified—and not on the porch. Without Lehtola’s conclusion that the fire started on the porch, the jail informant testimony was worthless.
The two experts said that Lehtola relied on myths of fire investigation that had been debunked by the time of trial. They noted that even though these outdated techniques were considered junk science by 2006, the defense had not presented an expert.
In their affidavits, Smith and Trenkle agreed that no fire investigator in 2006 could credibly have deemed the fire to be arson under the requirements of NFPA 921.
Smith and Trenkle said Lehtola did not follow NFPA 921, used outdated methodologies that had been exposed as junk science by 2006, failed to account for “flashover,” and erroneously concluded the fire was arson. Flashover occurs when a room becomes so hot that the entire room catches fire at once and burns with an intense heat. Flashover can leave behind debris and burn patterns that formerly were erroneously interpreted as being the result of an accelerant.
“There is no credible evidence that ignitable liquid was sprayed on the porch,” Smith declared.
Smith said Lehtola erroneously relied on several outdated and debunked myths about fire behavior:
● “Alligator” Charring—NFPA 921 cautions that: “[t]he presence of large shiny blisters (alligator char) is not evidence that a liquid accelerant was present during the fire, or that a fire spread rapidly or burned with greater intensity.” Smith said, “In this case however, Mr. Lehtola clearly made improper inferences from the presence of ‘alligator charring.’ He stated that such charring is indicative of ‘a rapid, free burning fire.’ He noted this was an important factor to him as an arson investigator, even though NFPA 921 specifically repudiates the inferences he was making.”
● Depth of Char—Lehtola stated that he determined the point of origin by moving from the area of least damage to the area of most damage. However, Smith noted, scientific research has shown this to be an unreliable indicator of the area of origin. He said the consequences of this flawed methodology are significant. According to Smith, the main problem with attempting to determine the origin of a fire by looking for the lowest and deepest char, is that the ignition source will not be found there. “An investigator who does not understand the science and who therefore incorrectly believes that the lowest and deepest char identifies the point of origin will, upon finding no accidental ignition source there, conclude that someone must have placed some fuel at that origin and ignited it with an open flame. This is the precise error that led Mr. Lehtola to focus on just one part of the porch, to the exclusion of everything else inside and outside the house.”
● Low-Level Burning—Although NFPA 921 makes clear that significant “low-level burning” does not indicate the use of an accelerant, Lehtola made this assumption as part of his analysis. Smith noted, “Low burn patterns are common in accidental fires,” yet Lehtola deemed this to be a mark of an intentionally set fire.
● Other “Suspicious” or “Unnatural” Burn Patterns—Lehtola erroneously deemed someburn patterns in this case to be suspicious, and indicative of accelerant, even though NFPA 921 makes clear that they are readily explained by flashover, intensity of heat exposure, properties of the material, effects of hot gases, flaming or smoldering debris and melted plastics.
● Lines of Demarcation—Smith declared: “Attributing the presence of sharp lines of demarcation from burned to unburned areas to the use of an accelerant is one of the more complex myths in fire investigation.”
● The Comparative Heat/Intensity of Arson Fires—Although “research has shown that a fast burning fire is not necessarily or even likely to be accelerant-fueled,” Lehtola nevertheless employed this myth in his analysis, Smith declared.
In addition, Lehtola also employed a methodology known as “negative corpus,” which declares a fire to be arson by process of elimination. This has been strongly prohibited by NFPA 921 since at least 2011. “Lehtola’s use of negative corpus would not be permissible today,” Smith said.
Trenkle reviewed documents and photos from the case, and he also interviewed several witnesses and visited the fire scene. Trenkle said, “It is not possible to deem this fire to be arson in a scientifically credible manner.”
Trenkle said, “By the year 2000, and certainly by 2006, all competent fire investigators in Oakland County were expected to be fully informed about and follow the guidelines of NFPA 921.”
Trenkle concluded that Lehtola failed to follow NFPA 921’s requirements in determining the fire’s origin, cause and classification, failed to account for flashover, and improperly employed negative corpus. Trenkle also noted that Lehtola relied on incomplete and selective witness information. For example, Lehtola relied on information from Marvin Craig, who said he saw the fire on the porch, but at the same time ignored Norman Fitzpatrick and Major Hatcher, who saw the fire at an earlier stage when it was confined to the inside of the house.
Trenkle said that the fire patterns that Lehtola relied upon were meaningless in determining the origin of this fire, given how the scene had been altered prior to Lehtola’s investigation and because flashover had occurred. Lehtola also failed to properly document the electrical circuitry of the structure to determine potential electrical origins.
Trenkle concluded that “[t]he fire cause classification for this fire, under NFPA 921, has to be undetermined. No factual or physical evidence of any fire cause has been found or provided that is not readily explained by non-arson causes. No competent scientific analysis could deem this fire an arson.” Trenkle noted that several other possible ignition sources, “such as children playing with matches, careless smoking or faulty electrical wiring were not thoroughly evaluated and cannot be ruled out.”
In January 2021, Karen McDonald took office as Oakland County Prosecuting Attorney. The Innocence Clinic requested that her office review the evidence. After an initial investigation uncovered information relating to the jail informants that had not been disclosed to Deering’s trial defense attorney, a special prosecutor, Beth Greenberg Morrow, was named to avoid a conflict of interest.
On August 27, 2021, Morrow filed a 21-page report recommending that Deering’s convictions be vacated.
The report said that a tape recording of an interview with 13-year-old Timmothy Dean had not been disclosed to Deering’s trial defense lawyer. The interview was conducted by a forensic interviewer with Detective Wurtz.
Timmothy said that before the fire broke out, he heard a voice outside the house. Timmothy was shown a photo lineup. He said he recognized the person in the lower left position on the photo lineup, that his name was Juwan, that Juwan lived in his neighborhood, but this Juwan was not the person he heard outside before the fire. Timmothy said that the person’s voice he recognized was “little Juwan,” who lived in Detroit. He said Juwan and “little Juwan” were two different people. He said the Juwan in the photo lineup did not set the fire.
“I’m sure it’s not him,” Timmothy said.
Although the photo lineup was not in the prosecution’s files and was not referred to in any police report, a photo lineup that appeared to be the same one was discovered by the Michigan State Police in evidence they had received from the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office. The photo in the lower left corner was Juwan Deering. Along with the interview, the photo lineup “is substantive newly discovered impeachment and exculpatory evidence,” Morrow’s report said.
Morrow also discussed the multiple pieces of newly discovered evidence indicating significant relationships between the jail informants and the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office (OCSO) and the Oakland County Prosecutor’s Office (OCPO).
“The failure to divulge the confidential informants’ relationships with the OCSO and OCPO weighs heavily in violation of constitutional due process, and accompanying federal and state law,” Morrow’s report said. “Jeffries received a sentence deviation for his cooperation. Turner received a charge reduction and a sentence at the bottom of the guidelines just weeks after his testimony. McMorris received complete dismissal of charges.”
Turner, for example, testified against Deering on July 25, 2006. Just a few weeks later, on August 15, 2006, Turner was charged with raping his 18 year-old neighbor. Turner was charged with six counts of criminal sexual conduct. He was permitted to plead no contest to one significantly reduced count of criminal sexual conduct. At sentencing, the Michigan Department of Corrections recommended a sentence of 19 to 40 years in prison. After Greg Townsend, the prosecutor in Deering’s case, approached the bench and spoke to the judge, Turner was sentenced to five years in prison.
“The prosecution’s case hinged on the jury hearing and believing the inculpatory statements by the jail informants,” the report said. “The jury was materially misled about all three jail informant’s relationships with the OCSO and OCPO, their motives and their credibility.”
On September 1, 2021, McDonald and Syed presented a joint motion to vacate Deering’s convictions. The motion said it was “painfully clear” that “Deering did not receive a fair trial, and that the verdict rendered by a jury that was deprived of critical exculpatory/impeachment evidence is no longer worthy of confidence. His conviction must be vacated and a new trial ordered.”
On September 21, 2021, Oakland County Circuit Court Judge Jeffrey Matis granted the motion and vacated Deering’s convictions.
On September 30, the prosecution dismissed the charges and Deering was released. Deering filed a compensation claim against the state of Michigan on November 2, 2021, seeking $754,677 for the 15 years he spent in prison.
– Maurice Possley
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Posting Date: 10/15/2021
Last Updated: 11/3/2021