When charges are dropped against a convicted criminal defendant after a significant period of incarceration, the reasons for such a sharp turn in the course of justice are rarely revealed – and even more rarely, do the reasons for dropping the charges provide a roadmap of prosecutorial missteps that result in the misguided conviction. But two days ago, all charges against Juwan Deering, a man who had been convicted of murdering five children in an arson fire and had served 15 years in prison, were dismissed due to the efforts of several law students and the Oakland County prosecutor.
Deering was convicted of setting fire to a house in which five children were sleeping. All five died in the fire. Prosecutors argued that the fire was revenge for unpaid drug debts. A group of law students at the University of Michigan Law School who were members of the Innocence Clinic, began to study the evidentiary record in the case, and they discovered a number of prejudicial errors by the prosecutors. For example, no witness was able to testify that they had seen Deering at the crime scene. Several jail informants testified against Deering, but the jury was not informed that these witnesses received compensation for their testimony.
Perhaps the most serious error was the failure of the prosecution to disclose to Deering’s lawyers the existence of testimony favorable to Deering, including the testimony of a fire survivor. Under current rules of criminal procedure, the prosecution was obligated to provide notice of such evidence to the defendant’s lawyers. A panel of 12 law enforcement professionals recently reviewed the record and unanimously concluded that the record did not contain enough evidence to connect Deering with the fire or the deaths of the five children.
The defendant will be eligible for payments of up to $50,000 per year under a Michigan law that pays $50,000 per year for every year of confinement to a wrongfully convicted person. Nothing can restore the 15 years of Deering’s life that were spent in prison, but the payments from the state should alleviate some of the pain. This case demonstrates how a case that appears to be a lock for conviction can, upon closer and dispassionate analysis fall apart when the evidence is reviewed by individuals with no pre-conditioned view of the outcome. The case also demonstrates how a vigorous defense can change the outcome if all remedies are energetically pursued.