Twenty-year-old Ledura Watkins was wrongfully convicted of murder in 1976. A Detroit jury found him guilty based on a single piece of evidence: a strand of hair allegedly found on the victim’s pants.
In 2017 – more than 40 years later – a 61-year-old Watkins walked out of the Wayne County Jail a free man.
With the help of the Western Michigan University Cooley Law School Innocence Project, Watkins ultimately proved that he did not shoot and kill Evette Ingram during a robbery at her home.
After years of post-conviction proceedings and appeals, the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office agreed with Watkins that the evidence – the single strand of hair – was flawed under a new Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) standard for hair comparison. The prosecutor ended up dropping all charges against Watkins.
Here is Watkins’ story.
A Murder In Detroit
Ingram, a known drug dealer, was shot and killed in her Detroit-area home on September 6, 1975. About six weeks later, Highland Park police arrested Travis Herndon on an unrelated robbery charge. During questioning, Herndon told police that he had information about the Ingram murder.
Herndon then spoke to the Detroit Police Department, telling officers that Watkins had shot and killed Ingram. Herndon later gave a second statement to police, saying that he and Watkins had gone to Ingram’s home at the request of a corrupt Highland Park police officer, Gary Vazana. The same day that Herndon gave this statement, Vazana was found dead in his home.
According to Herndon, Vazana let him and Watkins borrow his service revolver and vehicle. Herndon said that Vazana had told them to kill Ingram, take all the drugs they could find in her home, sell the drugs and then the three of them would split the proceeds. Herndon said that Watkins shot Ingram after they confiscated the drugs.
Watkins was arrested on October 22, 1975 and charged with Ingram’s murder. He denied killing Ingram.
At Watkins’ trial in Wayne County Circuit Court, Herndon testified against Watkins after prosecutors granted him immunity from being charged in conjunction with the Ingram murder. Herndon told the jury that Watkins told him to hold pillows over Ingram’s head and then Watkins shot her twice through the pillows. Herndon testified the men later gave the drugs they found at Ingram’s house, as well as the gun they used, to Vazana. During cross-examination, Herndon acknowledged that he had used drugs with Vazana and had sold Vazana drugs over the years. In addition, Herndon admitted that he had broken into the home of Watkins’ mother and robbed her just a few days before Ingram was murdered.
The only piece of physical evidence linking Watkins to the murder was a single strand of hair that police said they found on Ingram’s pants. A Detroit police officer testified that he received the hair on October 30, 1976, almost two months after the crime was committed. The officer testified that he could not remember when the hair was collected but indicated it was microscopically similar to Watkins’ hair. The officer told the jury that his opinion was based on “reasonable scientific certainty.”
One witness, Michael Miller, was available to impeach Herndon’s testimony. However, Miller refused to testify, invoking his Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination. Watkins’ defense lawyers then asked that Miller be granted immunity, like Herndon was, but prosecutors refused.
Watkins took the stand and testified in his own defense. He denied any involvement in the Ingram murder. He acknowledged that he knew Vazana but said he did not know that Vazana was involved in drugs. Watkins admitted that he had met Ingram through her cousin and that he had bought drugs from Ingram in the past. He also testified that he knew Herndon and that he had introduced Herndon to Ingram.
The jury convicted Watkins of first-degree murder on March 16, 1976. He was sentenced to life in prison. Watkins appealed.
Watkins made two arguments in his initial appeal:
1) the trial court erred in refusing to order a grant of immunity for Miller.
2) the trial court erred in admitting testimony regarding microscopic comparison of hair samples.
The Michigan Court of Appeals rejected these arguments in People v Watkins, 78 Mich App 89 (1977).
Regarding immunity, the Court of Appeals cited MCL 780.701, noting the statute “makes it clear” the prosecuting attorney has the discretionary authority to request the granting of immunity for a witness in a criminal proceeding. “Once the petition is filed, the judge likewise possesses discretionary authority and may issue the order granting immunity only if satisfied that such order shall serve the interests of justice,” the appeals court said.
“It is the opinion of this Court based upon the plain language of MCL 780.701 … and the light shed from the decisions reviewed from other jurisdictions, that only the prosecuting attorney is vested with discretionary authority to seek a grant of immunity in a criminal case,” the Court of Appeals wrote. “Although we have before us only a representation as to what witness Miller’s testimony may have been had he testified, this Court agrees with the trial judge in her analysis of this issue; defendant simply was not denied an opportunity to offer any material evidence, and hence no prejudice resulted to the defendant for that reason. Had Miller testified, his testimony would not have covered a material fact likely to have affected the outcome of this case, provided that the testimony would have been only that projected by defense counsel.”
Regarding the hair strand evidence, the Court of Appeals noted the expert witness in the case had concluded that one hair taken from Ingram’s pants was “microscopically similar” to Watkins’ hair and “could have a common origin” with him. “The standard for admissibility of scientific opinion evidence based upon analysis or tests is that such analysis or test must have gained recognition and acceptance in its particular field,” the appeals court said, citing Frye v United States, 293 F 1013 (1923). “In the case at bar testimony was offered to indicate the general scientific recognition of microscopic analysis of hair.”
The Court of Appeals also looked to People v Collins, 43 Mich App 259 (1972), lv den, 391 Mich 798 (1974), for guidance. According to the appeals court, the Collins panel held that the defendant’s objection to certain testimony went to its weight rather than its admissibility and, therefore, no error was established.
“It is the opinion of this Court in the case at bar, that the trial court did not err in admitting this testimony,” the Court of Appeals wrote. “The testimony satisfied the test for admissibility of scientific opinion testimony. What was involved was a question of weight and not admissibility.
Defendant’s claim of error is without merit.”
A few years after the Court of Appeals affirmed his conviction, Watkins filed a motion for a new trial. In his petition seeking relief, Watkins cited the fact that Herndon had recanted his testimony.
During hearings on the petition, Herndon acknowledged his testimony was false and indicated that Watkins was not involved in the Ingram murder. Herndon testified that when the lead investigator, Schwartz, told him that Vazana had been found murdered, he told Schwartz that he and Vazana had killed Ingram.
Herndon also testified that Schwartz and the prosecutor had given him “favorable treatment” because he was “cooperating” with them. According to Herndon, Schwartz and the prosecutor had intervened on his behalf with the judge who oversaw his robbery case and with prison officials. This favorable treatment was not disclosed to defense counsel at Watkins’ trial – in fact, at trial the prosecutor and Herndon denied any favorable treatment whatsoever.
Further, the results of Herndon’s polygraph test were presented at the hearing. The examiner concluded that Herndon’s truthfulness could not be verified and “he cannot be cleared in this matter.”
The trial judge ultimately denied Watkins’ motion for a new trial.
The Fight Continues …
Watkins continued his fight for justice and to obtain records in his case.
In 2009, Watkins received more than 300 pages from a “miscellaneous” homicide file at the Detroit Police Department. He was told that no other reports existed. The file included a report indicating that Herndon initially told police that Watkins acted alone. This information, however, was never disclosed to defense counsel. If it had been disclosed, defense counsel could have used it to impeach Herndon’s testimony at trial that he was with Watkins when Ingram was murdered. The file also contained a list of potential suspects in the case, including an individual who had threatened a friend of Ingram’s after Ingram had been murdered. That individual took a polygraph test and the results showed that he was untruthful.
A short time later, the Cooley Law School Innocence Project began looking into Watkins’ case. The Innocence Project obtained pages of a crime lab report and pages of a lab report. The Innocence Project also found a letter written by the prosecutor in the case to the Michigan Department of Corrections. In that letter, the prosecutor asked for favorable treatment for Herndon because he was cooperating in the Ingram murder investigation and other unrelated robbery cases.
Meanwhile, the FBI reported in 2013 that testimony claiming that microscopic hair comparison could produce a “match” between two hairs was scientifically “invalid.” As a result, hair comparison testimony and reports were scrutinized in numerous criminal cases across the country. It was determined that in more than 90 percent of the cases, FBI analysts had provided erroneous testimony or reports. (Note: The analyst who testified in Watkins’ case was not part of the case review.)
In 2016, the Michigan Supreme Court issued an order on Watkins’ application for leave to appeal, after the Court of Appeals denied his delayed application for leave. In its order, the Michigan Supreme Court vacated the Court of Appeals order and remanded the case to the Wayne County Circuit Court for reconsideration. According to the justices, the trial court erred in applying People v Cress, 468 Mich 678 (2003), to an analysis of whether Watkins’ motion was improperly successive under MCR 6.502(G). “Cress does not apply to the procedural threshold of MCR 6.502(G)(2), as the plain text of the court rule does not require that a defendant satisfy all elements of the test. In Issues I and II, the defendant provided ‘a claim of new evidence that was not discovered before the first’ motion for relief from judgment, MCR 6.502(G)(2).”
Thereafter, the Cooley Innocence Project filed another motion for new trial on Watkins’ behalf. The Innocence Project asserted the following arguments:
1) police and lab reports were not disclosed to defense counsel.
2) Herndon had recanted his statement to police.
3) prosecutors and police failed to disclose Herndon’s favorable treatment.
4) the hair strand analysis was unreliable.
The Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office supported the motion and, on June 15, 2017, Wayne County Circuit Judge Bruce Morrow vacated Watkins’ conviction. Prosecutors then dismissed the murder charge against Watkins.
For more information on the Watkins’ exoneration, watch Episode 4 of “In the Name of the Law.”