Innocence Clinic seeks new trial for man convicted of 1996 murder

By Katie Vloet
U-M Law

A fingerprint lifted from the bloody murder weapon in the 1996 killing of 12-year-old Christina Brown in Detroit has now been matched to a different man, leading the Michigan Innocence Clinic? to ask for relief from judgment and a new trial for their client, Lamarr Monson, who has served nearly two decades in prison for the killing.

The person whose fingerprint matches the one found on the murder weapon is the same man identified as the killer by his then-girlfriend, who came forward in 2012 to tell Detroit Police that her boyfriend appeared at her door the day of the killing covered in blood and confessed to the murder. She did not come forward before because her boyfriend had threatened her and her family.
“The only thing tying Lamarr Monson to the murder was his wildly inaccurate ‘confession’ extracted by two detectives. Absolutely no physical evidence connected him to the killing of Christina Brown,” said Caitlin Plummer?, an attorney for the Michigan Innocence Clinic at the University of Michigan Law School. “Meanwhile, the man whose fingerprint was on the murder weapon remains a free man.”

The murder of Christina Brown in 1996 sent shockwaves through the city because of the brutality of the killing and the girl’s young age. A runaway, the 12-year-old Brown convinced her new neighbors in a partially burned-out apartment building on West Boston that she was 17 years old. She and Monson both sold drugs from one of the apartments.

Monson entered the apartment on the afternoon of January 20, 1996, to find a bloody scene, and he ran to neighbors’ apartments to call 911; Brown, he believed, was still alive when he found her, but she had died by the time first responders arrived. Police initially believed the death was caused by stabbing. Monson became their prime suspect.

Under an interrogation led by Lt. Joan Ghougoian, Monson was told that if he went along with an “information summary” and signed it, he “would be at home by this time tomorrow” and he “would probably get out on personal bond,” but “right now you are arrested, you are held under Murder I.” Monson maintains that he did not provide the information contained in the typed statement that he signed, nor did he realize that it was a confession when he signed the form, according to the Michigan Innocence Clinic’s motion for relief from judgment. On March 7, 1997, after a three-day jury trial, Monson was convicted of one count of second-degree murder. He was sentenced to 30 to 50 years imprisonment and currently is serving this sentence at Gus Harrison Correctional Facility in Adrian.

Ghougoian, meanwhile, was accused of routinely violating the rights of suspects by promising that they could go home in return for confessions, the motion points out. She was under investigation for illegal promises in at least a half-dozen murder cases, and she was removed from the homicide unit in April 1997.

In the extracted confession, Monson said that he killed Brown by stabbing her, which police believed at the time to be the cause of death. The medical examiner later determined that the actual cause was a massive head injury: she suffered a fractured skull, bruises on the brain, and also bleeding inside the head due to a beating—rendering the extracted confession from Monson inaccurate. Brown was also strangled, stabbed, and cut.

Brown had been beaten with the porcelain toilet tank lid that had been found, covered in blood, on the floor of the apartment not far from Brown’s body. A new fingerprint analysis, conducted by the Detroit Police in 2015, proves that the previously unidentified fingerprint lifted from the murder weapon, matches someone else who was living in the building.

In 2012, that same man was implicated in the murder by Shellena Bentley, who had lived in the apartment building on West Boston with him. Bentley walked into a Detroit Police station and detailed how he appeared at her door, covered in blood, and confessed to killing Brown. In her statements in and since 2012, Bentley has given a consistent account: On the morning of the murder, her then-boyfriend, went to purchase drugs from the apartment where Brown was found. He returned, covered in blood, saying he “killed the bitch” because she scratched him, disposed of his bloody clothing with the help of his brother, and threatened Bentley with the deaths of herself and her entire family if she came forward. She came forward in 2012 because she learned that her ex-boyfriend was no longer living in Detroit.

“The new evidence of the fingerprint on the murder weapon shows that Lamarr Monson is innocent and, at the very least, requires a new trial of this case,” said David Moran, director of the Michigan Innocence Clinic.

He added that Shellena Bentley made numerous attempts to anonymously inform the police of her ex-boyfriend’s responsibility for Brown’s death prior to Monson’s 1997 trial, but these tips were never turned over by the state.

False confessions are common in cases of wrongful conviction. To date, the National Registry of Exonerations cites false confessions as a factor in 115 cases in which the defendant was later exonerated, including approximately 25 percent of the cases in which the defendant was exonerated by DNA.