Michigan Man Exonerated 38 Years Later After Woman Takes Back Her Witness Account
Walter Forbes, a Michigan sentenced to life in prison in 1982 is now a free man after a key witness recanted her testimony
A Michigan man sentenced to life in prison in 1982 is now a free man after a key witness recanted her testimony, according to a report. When he was a young college student, Walter Forbes and two men were accused of carrying red gasoline canisters and pouring the flammable liquid around a building, which ultimately resulted in an apartment fire that killed a man named Dennis Hall, CNN reported.
A few nights before the deadly fire, Forbes and Hall had an encounter, where Forbes got involved between two groups fighting outside of a bar in his small town, the outlet reported. The next day, Hall shot Forbes four times, an incident from which Forbes spent several months recovering.
The story wouldn't end there. A few days after the shooting, Hall would die in an apartment fire and ultimately Forbes would end up behind bars.
Nearly 40 years later, Forbes recounted to CNN the moment he heard about the arson on a morning radio program, remembering thinking to himself that "they're going to frame this one me," he said.
Three months after the fire, a woman named Annice Kennebrew came forward and told authorities she witnessed Forbes and two other men commit the arson, according to court documents obtained by CNN. Fire investigators found evidence that did not corroborate with Kennebrew's accounts of the night, claiming that accelerants were only found on the inside, not the exterior. And a container of gasoline discovered at the scene was blue, not red.
The two other men accused in the arson were not convicted after one passed a polygraph test and the other was acquitted. Only Forbes was convicted and sentenced.
This case proved shocking to lawyers and students who run the Michigan Innocence Clinic at the University of Michigan, who found it curious that a single witness could lead to a man being convicted of murder.
"We knew there were two things we wanted: to speak to the witness and see what her story was. We also knew there had been an alternate suspect from the beginning in this case," Imran Syed, the attorney for Forbes who first learned about his case while in law school, told CNN.
Syed and his legal team reached out to Kennebrew, who finally admitted that she was pressured by two men in the neighborhood to implicate Forbes and two other men in the fire, CNN reported. If she didn't listen to them, they "threatened" to kill her family, she stated in a sworn 2017 affidavit obtained by the outlet. She also reportedly said that everything she told the police and at trial "was a fabrication" and that from what she knew, Forbes "had nothing to do" with the crime.
"She came clean," Syed told CNN.
In an interview with the outlet, Kennebrew admitted to being "a kid" at the time, calling the incident "hard."
The building’s owner, David Jones, who died before the clinic took on Forbes’ case in 2010, was convicted in a separate arson conspiracy scheme in 1990, according to the Detroit Free Press. Two people who conspired with Jones to burn the building allegedly told police that Jones played a role in the 1982 fire that Forbes was accused of, the Free Press reported. Jones reportedly received over $50,000 in insurance money and although buying the property eight years prior, only insured it two months before the fire.
The clinic argued that Forbes deserved a new trial based on the new evidence. After reviewing the case, the Jackson County prosecutor's office opposed the clinic's motion for relief from judgment. Prosecutors argued that the inconsistencies in Kennebrew's original testimony were insignificant and that the woman could have "easily" been confused by the colors of the gasoline canister.
The county prosecutor said Forbes would have to show that it was "more probable than not" that a jury would acquit him, were he to be granted a new trial, CNN reported. Prosecutors were also skeptical as to why two men would pressure Kennebrew to testify, CNN reported. Both of those men named have since died, court documents show.
A judge eventually threw out Forbes' conviction this fall and a motion to dismiss the case was filed by the county prosecutor.
By Nov. 20, Forbes was a free man. While in prison, Forbes used his time to work with prison reform groups, something he hopes to continue to do now that he is out.
"It's not that complicated. It's not a DNA case. It's not a forensic science case. It's pretty straightforward," Syed told the outlet. "It's pretty sad that it took 38 years."
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