Proof and Consequences

Former TV reporter now in realm of making news

One of Bill Proctor's former colleagues used to marvel at what he called the TV reporter's "James Bond cool." Under the most intense pressures of deadlines, competition and even physical risk, Proctor would remain controlled and professional.

So it's somewhat surprising to hear his voice slowly rise and see his eyes fill with fire, more like an Old Testament prophet than a supercool spy, as he talks about those who have been wrongly imprisoned for crimes they didn't commit.

His fist comes down gently on his desk, then more forcefully, like a fleshy metronome, as he ticks off the chain of events that unjustly landed one man in jail and keeps him there.

One of journalism's conventions is the detached, objective observer dedicated to presenting the facts to the audience and letting them decide for themselves.

With his recent retirement, Proctor has been able to lay down the mantle of objectivity and become a passionate advocate, rather than an observer.

Proctor, 65, retired recently after 33 years at Detroit's WXYZ Channel 7, where he won many awards for broadcast journalism.

His career arc is an interesting one, with the law at both ends and a distinguished journalism career sandwiched in the middle. He started his work life in federal law enforcement and now intends to devote his "retirement" to using his investigative skills helping people who are wrongly convicted to get out of prison.

He now has a powerful commitment, through the Proving Innocence organization, to helping those he believes are wrongly incarcerated. The particular case he's losing his cool over in his office involves a prisoner named Temujin Kensu. Proctor had never heard the name until he was approached by a grizzled, veteran private investigator in the 1990s.

"It was thrust upon me, as it is most people in my position," Proctor says. "The man was an eastside private investigator named Al Woodside. Al brought me an argument and a box of documents and said, 'This guy didn't do it.' "

Proctor, like most veteran reporters, had been approached before with similar stories, but he confesses he was shocked by what he saw.

"This guy had taken the time, done the interviews and had all his ducks in order," he says. "When Woodside came to me, it was simply a matter of me retracing his steps and asking questions beyond what he had done. The wrongness of it was very clear, after the alibi witness took and passed a polygraph, after the lunacy of the trial was laid out to me."

Among the "stretches" the prosecution made in the trial was the contention that Kensu had traveled 425 miles in bad winter weather, from the small town of Rock near Escanaba in the Upper Peninsula, to Port Huron where he allegedly committed the murder, and then back to Rock to establish his alibi.

Proctor says, "The guy couldn't pay his $300 rent for the month, but the prosecutor said that (the accused) found a pilot, caught a plane, the plane landed clandestinely near Port Huron, he was driven to the scene, did the shooting, got back in the car, went back to the plane, took off again, flew back to Escanaba and established his alibis. It was laughable, but I wasn't laughing."

At Kensu's repeated hearings before the Michigan Parole and Commutation board, Proctor's group Proving Innocence, the Michigan Innocence Clinic at the University of Michigan and the Cooley Innocence Project at Cooley Law School have all made presentations on his behalf.

"To this day, despite 20 years of work, he's still in prison," Proctor says. Although he's strongly associated with Detroit, where he spent the bulk of his career, Proctor is originally from the east coast.

"I was born in Washington, D.C. That's also where I was a police officer and college student," he says. "Went to high school there and then into the Air Force. After the Air Force, I did a little retail, selling men's clothing for a while."

But Proctor eventually ended up in law enforcement and pursuing a degree at the University of Maryland.

"My police work back then wasn't like a city cop. I was federal," he says. "I was in on the launch of the Federal Protective Service. In 1970, everybody in uniform worked for the GSA and we were GSA security guards. Richard Nixon, in his wonderful paranoia, decided 'all you people should really be police.' So we went through all the training andlaunched the Federal Protective Service."

This could have led to protecting obscure public officials or dusty government buildings, but life in Washington was just starting to get interesting.

This was the time of the Vietnam War protests," he says. "Just about the time we were all certified, some of us were chosen as the tactical squad and we were the ones standing out there in helmets, riot gear and batons, keeping back demonstrators who wanted to take over the Justice Department."

His love for his reporting job comes through loud and clear in his self-penned profile on the networking site "LinkedIn."

"As a reporter, news anchor, early morning 'snowman' in blizzards, and finally, investigator, I have been among the luckiest people on the planet. Detroit is a place where news never stops ... where the people are always interesting, controversial, criminal, lovable, sinister and sensible ... where the issues are complicated ... seldom straight line ... and almost always debatable."

One story he covered ended up blending his law enforcement background with his journalism job. In 1987 a deluded woman named Alberta Easter and her adult sons were involved in a shooting at the Bungalow Motel in Inkster.

Police officers had gone to the motel to serve warrants on Easter and gunfire erupted. The officers were in the room and Easter's sons barricaded the door and threatened to shoot anyone who approached. Police knew of Proctor's law enforcement background and he ended up negotiating with Easter on the phone. The gunfire finally stopped.

"Easter was a big deal, because I went right back into police mode," Proctor says. "There are only two or three things that you know that you have to do. Can I speak to one of the police officers? Tell your sons that all the gunfire has to stop. We got a ceasefire, but the cops were already dead."

Easter and her sons surrendered and were all convicted of murder.

There is some irony that DNA evidence is sometimes the key that unlocks the jailhouse door. Proctor believes that bad science, reinforced by the public's perception driven by television's crime investigation dramas, helped put some of the wrongly convicted away in the first place.

"There's no doubt that there's a combination of smoke and mirrors, Hollywood dream world scenarios and junk science," he says. "For example, we're finding out now that a lot of what we've heard from fire department investigators is flat out bull----.

"The bottom line is that if they had good labs back when they started to perpetuate all this crap, the labs would've told them 'no, you're wrong.' This is a plastic residue, not gasoline. They had no concern that there were elements in plastic curtains that would burn."

"Do I think 'CSI Miami' and all these other shows drive public perception? Yes, but they don't do anything to alert the system that they should be looking for real answers rather than perceived answers."

One of the more interesting forks in the road in a career with many of them might have led to Proctor becoming an attorney himself.

"By the time I finished at the University of Maryland with a sociology degree with a minor in corrections, I did well enough to knock on the door and have a couple of interviews at American University's Law School," Proctor says. "They wanted more people who were cops to end up as lawyers. But the combination of too much debt and too much work to get to the BA, I said now is about the time to move on."

The safe money says that he would have become a defense attorney rather than a prosecutor.

 By Steve Thorpe

 

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