Pair exonerated thanks to clinic

By Kristy Demas
U-M Law

"The first time Justly called my partner and me during office hours, he tested whether his new student-attorneys were worth their salt by asking us what standard of review the Michigan Supreme Court would be using when evaluating the merits brief we were working on. I feel so lucky to have been part of their team at the point when the court finally paid attention to what Justly and Kendrick had to say," said University of Michigan Law School 3L Rebecca Wyss.

As part of the Michigan Innocence Clinic team representing co-defendants Justly Johnson and Kendrick Scott in the appeal of their murder convictions, Wyss was thrilled with their exoneration in the Wayne County Circuit Court in Detroit on November 28. This ruling brings the clinic's number of successful cases to 21.

Johnson and Scott were convicted in 2000 of shooting and killing Lisa Kindred in the early morning hours of Mother's Day 1999 while she waited in a car with her three children. Detroit police arrested four men-two of whom became defendants while the other two became witnesses against the defendants. The witnesses later admitted they did not know who committed the murder but implicated Johnson and Scott out of fear they would be charged themselves. After many rounds of appeals over two decades, the Michigan Supreme Court vacated the convictions in July 2018 based on new evidence of innocence. The main new evidence was the testimony of the victim's own son, who had been in the car when his mother was shot and said he saw the shooter, whom he was sure was neither Johnson nor Scott.

Elena Malik, a 2L student-attorney on the team, said, "Yesterday was an incredibly happy and emotional day, but it was also a solemn reminder of the procedural hurdles and frustrations that accompany criminal defense work. We are thrilled to have Justly and Kendrick back in their communities."

Over the course of nearly nine years, 28 students have worked on this case. (Johnson also was represented by the Wisconsin Innocence Project prior to the founding of the Michigan Innocence Clinic in 2009.) According to Clinical Assistant Professor of Law Imran Syed, assistant director of the Innocence Clinic and lead counsel for the men, the case really cracked open in 2011 due to the intrepid efforts of investigative reporter Scott Lewis. It was Lewis who tracked down the victim's son, who had been 8 years old at the time of the murder, to get his account of that fateful night. The son's testimony, as well as the recantations of incriminating testimony by the two witnesses, helped bring about the legal victory, but not without a number of ups and downs along the way.

"This was absolutely the right result, though it should never have been necessary in the first place. I only began to work on this case in September 2018, and if the slow pace of 'justice' has been this frustrating over the course of three months, I cannot imagine how it feels to have experienced it for almost 20 years," said 2L Sara McDonald, one of the student-attorneys who worked on the case. "I am so happy for them and for their families, and feel so lucky to have been able to work with them through the Innocence Clinic."

Published: Mon, Dec 17, 2018