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Man imprisoned 15 years is suing Oakland County lawmen, ex-cellmates for conviction

Detroit —  A man who served 15 years of a life prison term for an arson fire in 2000 that killed five children is suing Oakland County police and ex-cellmates after his conviction was set aside.

Juwan Deering, 50, was released from prison last September after a judge vacated his 2006 conviction and the Oakland County prosecutor said she wouldn't retry the case.

The 52-page filing in U.S. District Court claims authorities and inmates conspired to blame Deering for the deaths and alleges: 

►Investigators were aware that testimony of three jailhouse informants was false

►An eyewitness account favorable to Deering was withheld from defense attorneys

►Witness testimony was conflicting about where the fire started

►An interview tape of a key witness was never shared with the defense

►There was a two-page handwritten note from a jailhouse informant requesting help in exchange for his testimony

Oakland County Prosecutor Karen McDonald said at the time of Deering’s release last year there had been misconduct in Deering’s case and she had no plans to retry it.

Deering’s attorneys could not be reached for comment Thursday.

The Michigan Innocence Clinic and McDonald asked Oakland County Circuit Judge Jeffrey Matis to vacate Deering’s conviction because critical evidence had been withheld from Deering's defense attorney and Deering had been denied a fair trial.  

Michigan Innocence Clinic attorney Imran Syed has said the case against Deering was largely based on the testimony of jailhouse informants, who testified Deering had implicated himself in the fire deaths.

But neither Deering’s trial attorney nor the jury knew that in exchange for their cooperation those same witnesses received preferential treatment, including lesser sentences. In one case, charges were dismissed against an informant who implicated Deering.

The appeal team also established the lone survivor of the fire, Timm Dean, who was 13 at the time, told a sheriff's detective in an interview never introduced during Deering's trial that Dean had recognized Deering from a photo lineup because he knew him as a neighbor. But Dean maintained Deering was not the person he had heard outside the home possibly setting the fire.

The Oakland County Prosecutor's Office denied warrants three times in the case in 2000 under a previous prosecutor before Deering was charged.

Deering didn't testify at the trial but he has maintained he had nothing to do with the fire, his attorneys said.

He was a known drug dealer who lived in the neighborhood and one police theory was that he set the fire in retaliation for a drug debt owed by the victim's father, Oliver Dean, who was not at home at the time.

Dean said he had transactions with several dealers and despite the theory about possible retaliation, he insisted Deering never threatened him to repay a $50 drug debt, he told investigators.

Deering was sentenced to life in prison in 2006 for the April 2000 fire on Pasadena in Royal Oak Township that claimed the lives of Taleigha Dean, 10; Craig Dean, 8; Aaron Dean, 7; Eugene Dean, 5; and an 11-year-old friend, Michelle Frame.

While jail-house informants are not uncommon in criminal cases, prosecutors and investigators are expected to disclose what, if anything, was offered in exchange for their cooperation. The findings of a special prosecutor who conducted a probe into Deering's case, court records and evidence indicated prosecutors concealed such cooperation.

McDonald has noted concerns over protocols not being followed in the Prosecutor’s Office, ineffective counsel for Deering and the failure by police to share key evidence, including a videotaped interview with Timm Dean conducted by then-Oakland County Sheriff's detective David Wurtz.

At trial Wurtz, now a part-time case analyst for the Sheriff's Office, denied informants were promised leniency, special favors or early release in exchange for their testimony. Gregory Townsend, the assistant prosecutor who tried Deering's case, reiterated the same in his closing argument to the jury.

Townsend once headed major crimes for the Oakland County Prosecutor’s Office. He later moved to the State Attorney General’s Office and was one of the lead attorneys in the prosecution of charges in the alleged kidnapping plot against Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

After questions were raised about the prosecution of Deering, Townsend was reassigned to other duties and he retired in July.

McDonald has since initiated a Conviction Integrity Unit in her office to work with groups like the Innocence Clinic on appealed convictions.

The lawsuit seeks in excess of $75,000 in damages from the county; part-time sheriff’s office investigator Wurtz; the estate of deceased Sheriff’s Office detective Gary Miller; retired task force detective William Harvey; former Assistant Prosecutor Gregory Townsend; and three jailhouse inmates who provided testimony in the case.

After his release last year, Deering was greeted by relatives and friends outside Oakland County Circuit Court.

"I never gave up (hope)," Deering told those waiting for his release. "I didn't think a god I believed in would keep me in prison for something I didn't do."

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