Court of Appeals strikes 1980 murder conviction

TAWAS CITY, Mich. (AP) -- The Michigan appeals court overturned a second-degree murder conviction last Friday in a small, rural county, 32 years after a woman disappeared without a trace when her car broke down with a bad radiator hose.

There was evidence that Jimmie Nelson sold his pickup truck and was covering his tracks after Cherita Thomas disappeared in August 1980, but that wasn't enough to convict him years later, a three-judge panel said. Thomas' body never has been found.

"We recognize the difficult task that a prosecutor's office faces in prosecuting a case 30 years after a person's disappearance and death," judges Jane Beckering, Donald Owens, and Douglas Shapiro said.

"But courts must live with the evidence gleaned from a police investigation that did not seriously examine Nelson until many years after Thomas' disappearance and did not produce physical evidence linking Nelson to Thomas' death," the court said.

The investigation in Oscoda, 200 miles north of Detroit, lasted decades and involved local police and the FBI. Witnesses said they saw Thomas twice on the night she disappeared, both times struggling with a steaming radiator. One witness said she drove off with a man in a blue pickup truck.

Nelson, now 60, owned a blue pickup at the time and acknowledged seeing Thomas that night. Police were told Nelson was openly hostile toward blacks. Thomas was black.

He was charged in 2004 but didn't face trial until 2010 because of appeals and other delays. A judge convicted Nelson of second-degree murder after a two-day trial and sentenced him to at least 25 years in prison.

The appeals court, however, said the evidence doesn't show beyond a reasonable doubt that Nelson caused Thomas' death. He cannot be charged again with the same crime.

A message seeking comment from Iosco County Prosecutor Gary Rapp was not immediately returned. Rapp could ask the state Supreme Court to review the case.

"We ... recognize the impact that this decision has on Thomas' community and family. Her death is a tragedy," the appeals court said. "But it is important to remember the distinction between having a good reason to believe that a defendant committed a crime and having proof beyond a reasonable doubt that a defendant committed a crime."

Published: Tue, Aug 28, 2012