Federal Grant Helps Free Four Innocent Michigan Men from Prison

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel attends rally for reproductive freedom and voting rights on the campus of the University of Michigan in 2022. (Photo by JEFF KOWALSKY/AFP via Getty Images)

By Kyle Kaminski

August 28, 2023

A three-year project funded by a federal grant helped prosecutors review hundreds of criminal convictions in Michigan—and four innocent prisoners were set free.

MICHIGAN—About four years ago, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel made a promise to review hundreds of criminal cases to ensure nobody had been convicted of a crime that they didn’t actually commit. For the state’s chief law enforcement officer, it was all about justice.

“We have a duty to ensure those convicted of state crimes by county prosecutors and our office are, in fact, guilty of those crimes,” Nessel said in a statement announcing the state’s first-ever “Conviction Integrity Unit,” which was launched in 2019 exclusively to fulfill that duty to justice.

And this month, after receiving more than $700,000 in federal grant funding to support its efforts, Nessel is billing the years-long effort as “successful” after four innocent Michiganders were released from lengthy prison sentences as a direct result of the Conviction Integrity Unit’s work. 

“These cases serve as examples of the important work being done,” Nessel said in a statement.

For the last four years, the state’s Conviction Integrity Unit has been tasked with reviewing old criminal convictions in Michigan and investigating whether there is substantial evidence that could reveal that a prisoner had been wrongfully accused and convicted. In some cases, that led to additional interviews and the testing of physical evidence using more modern technology.

In 2019, the US Department of Justice awarded a $735,000 grant to Nessel’s office, which then partnered with Cooley Law School’s Innocence Project, to review 300 cases and determine whether DNA testing could help corroborate claims of innocence. All told, the Conviction Integrity Unit was able to review 620 cases—more than double their initial goal under the grant.

Of those reviewed, nine cases involving physical evidence were submitted for more DNA tests. And for four Michigan men, the efforts led to their criminal convictions being vacated altogether.

Gilbert Poole

Gilbert Poole, of Holt, was released from prison in 2021 after serving nearly 32 years behind bars for a murder that he did not commit. He has since enrolled at Lansing Community College for legal studies, and is expected to begin studying there this fall, according to a press release.

“I am finally able to enjoy my life,” Poole said in a statement. “I now can choose how to spend my days, including working on house projects, building my dream garage, and giving back to others who are trying to prove their innocence. I am beyond thankful.”

Poole was wrongfully convicted in the 1988 murder of Robert Mejia in Pontiac. DNA testing by the Conviction Integrity Unit showed that Poole was not the killer and his conviction was tossed.

After leaving prison, Poole reportedly filed a compensation claim with the state and was awarded about $1.6 million. He also recently filed a $100 million lawsuit against Oakland County and the city of Pontiac, claiming that he was wrongly convicted, in part, because of junk science. 

Corey McCall

Corey McCall was wrongfully sentenced to life in prison without parole in the fatal shootings of three people—including a 12-year-old boy—at a Benton Harbor home in 2005. A subsequent investigation cleared him of any wrongdoing after he served about 16 years of his sentence.

Before trial, McCall insisted that he was at Walmart when the crime occurred. But testimony from Walmart employees discredited his alibi and McCall was ultimately convicted by a jury.

Corey McCall was released from prison in 2021. (Courtesy Photo/Cooley Law School)

Prosecutors said they later received “new information” that McCall didn’t actually participate in the crime—which led to interviews with new witnesses and new evidence that showed he was innocent. Benton Harbor cops also forensically analyzed a phone, which had corroborated the new evidence. The triple-murder conviction against McCall was ultimately vacated in 2021.

“It’s been a long time. It’s been hard, and I’m glad I’m here,” McCall told the Detroit Free Press in 2021. “You can’t be angry. You can’t hang on to a grudge. You’ve got to live and let go.”

Officials said McCall has since married and bought a new home, and is now working full time after receiving about $800,000 in state compensation—$50,000 for each year behind bars.

George and Melvin DeJesus

The DeJesus Brothers, George and Melvin, were released from custody last year after serving 27 years in separate prisons for a murder that they didn’t commit. 

The two brothers had reportedly always maintained they were at a party during the murder of Margaret Midkiff, who was found dead in her basement in Pontiac in 1995. Officials said a review later showed that a key witness had actually blamed the brothers in exchange for a deal with prosecutors that allowed him to plead guilty to lesser charges and avoid a life sentence. 

George DeJesus is embraced by family and supporters at a restaurant parking lot in Lansing in 2022. (AP Photo/Anna Liz Nichols)

In reports from the New York Times, both brothers credited their mother with helping them keep their fight to be exonerated alive. They also credited advances in DNA testing technology, which had reportedly shown that neither of the two brothers were actually involved with the murder.

“It was hard because you could lose faith,” George DeJesus said at a news conference after his release. “But we always fought hard and, just when we felt that momentum going down, my mother made us promise we would never give up—no matter what happens.”

Officials at Nessel’s office said the brothers have since bought a house, and have been traveling to visit family who they haven’t seen in decades.

More Work Ahead

Last year, the federal government awarded Nessel’s office another $550,000 grant to launch another three-year exoneration project. Officials said the Conviction Integrity Unit plans to use the cash to review another 300 cases—and possibly release more innocent prisoners.

The grant will also support a new special project called the “Preserving Evidence Project,” which is designed to ensure that physical evidence is preserved in cases where it may help prove the identity of the perpetrator. Officials said the preservation of evidence is essential for ensuring justice for victims, the community, and for those who may end up wrongfully convicted of crimes.

To date, the Conviction Integrity Unit has reviewed about 1,000 of the 1,900 requests that it has received for assistance. This summer, state lawmakers earmarked $1 million to support the program—including a backlog of applications that don’t involve testing for DNA evidence. 

For the latest Michigan news, follow The ‘Gander on Twitter.

Follow Political Correspondent Kyle Kaminski here.

Author

  • Kyle Kaminski

    Kyle Kaminski is an award-winning investigative journalist with more than a decade of experience covering news across Michigan. Prior to joining The ‘Gander, Kyle worked as the managing editor at City Pulse in Lansing and as a reporter for the Traverse City Record-Eagle.

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