Aaron, 37, Detroit, Michigan, USA
[as told to Then God Moved editor Adira Polite]
I spent fifteen years in prison for a murder I didn’t commit.
It all began in 2003, right after my freshman year at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. To save some money, I’d decided to take a year off and return home to Detroit.
Late in the summer, I was riding around the east side with my cousin Rob. Rob was dealing and, like usual, I was tagging along to make some extra coins. At one point, Rob saw a guy named E selling to one of his usual customers. Rob was pretty upset and got out of the car to confront him.
As my cousin approached, E pulled out a revolver and shot him five times, point blank. Rob staggered towards the car, but eventually fell. E disappeared around the corner and I stayed put, shell-shocked. After only a moment, E returned. When I saw that he had a rifle in his hand, I scrambled out of the car and ran. E shot Rob six more times. He pointed the gun in my direction, but I escaped unharmed.
Because Rob was shot at close range, the bullets ripped right through him, leaving his organs intact. He lived. Out of fear of E, Rob refused to tell the police anything. I was on probation for a burglary charge and didn’t want to get caught up over drugs, so I kept quiet, too. In hindsight, I can see that my silence made the cops suspicious. They thought that I was covering for someone. Working with someone. So when that someone kept killing, they came after me.
The murder I went down for occurred 3 days later, at around two in the morning. I was asleep at my cousin Gregory’s house, where I’d been staying since Rob was shot. Three people were sitting on a porch when E and another guy strolled up. E shot two of the people on the porch, plus a guy riding by on a bicycle. Everyone on the porch survived, but the guy on the bike, a man named Willie Thomas, died.
Immediately after, the survivors told police that the shooter’s name was Rob. Rob, meanwhile, was still in the hospital. The witnesses described “Rob” as “a thin man.”They guessed he was around 5-feet-7-inches and weighed between 150 and 170 pounds. I was a 6-foot-4-inch, 250 pound defensive linebacker. They also said that the shooter had a light brown complexion; I’m dark skinned.
Still, six hours after the shooting, the cops took my photograph to one of the survivors. The police pressed him, asking if I — “Rob” — was the one who shot them, making it clear that they thought I was the one. The witness eventually said yes.
Not a shred of evidence linked me to the crime, but this shaky identification was enough to get a warrant on me. I was indicted on one count of first degree murder and two counts of assault with intent to commit murder. During a preliminary hearing, my attorney asked the head officer why he’d suspected me and presented my photo in such a suggestive manner. His response: “I had a hunch.”
The trial began on December 3rd, 2003. The jury was mostly white; 9 white, 3 black. I remember that one kept falling asleep. My attorney had to be one of the worst. He half-heartedly responded to every claim the prosecutor made, but presented no theories of his own — so, the prosecutor’s narrative reigned. My attorney never presented an alibi defense, even though my alibi witnesses — my cousin Gregory, his wife, and his kids — came to trial. He dropped the ball over and over, but I couldn’t afford to hire anyone else.
After three days of testimony and only three hours of jury deliberation, I was convicted. When I heard “guilty,” my world fell apart. It hurt so bad, but I couldn’t even cry for like a week. I just couldn’t believe that I was going away for something I didn’t do. A month later, I was sentenced to life without parole.
I started doubting God that day. It was easy to do, because I never really knew Him. I went to church growing up, but only because I had to. I’d never had a genuine relationship with Him and now, I definitely didn’t think He could be trusted. If He truly loved me, as Scripture told me He did, why would he allow me to be railroaded by lies? I was sure that He’d deserted me. Fortunately, with time, I would see that He hadn’t. On the contrary, He was very, very close.
In 2009, I was appointed federal defenders. These new attorneys had investigators and their investigators listened to me. The team even searched for evidence to back up my claims, which no one had ever done before. They eventually made contact with the witness who’d identified me and he recanted! At that point, his eyewitness identification — the only shred of “evidence” linking me to the crime — was void. My attorneys submitted appeal after appeal; still, I remained in prison.
I was frustrated, but I was also starting to see God. Out of nowhere, the little seeds of faith that were planted in my youth began to bud. In His own ways, God made it clear that He was with me and I believed Him. As my faith grew, so did my gratitude for life itself. God showed me that, though I was not guilty of this crime, I had been caught up in a dangerous, toxic world. I meditated on this for a while. Then, one day, my faith in full bloom, I told Him, “You gave me this life and I’m going to live it for you.” He later took me up on that.
God kept sending help and, with that, more and more good news. Finally, in 2018, my case was reopened by Detroit’s Conviction Integrity Unit, an extension of the local prosecutor’s office. The CIU attorneys started working on my case in May of that year. Three months later, I was exonerated. I walked out on my 36th birthday.
From the jump, housing was a struggle. I desperately needed my own place, but it was hard to obtain. After hearing about the similar struggles of other exonerees, I realized that we have very specific needs, none of which are being met by the system. Unlike ex-convicts, exonerees aren’t assigned parole officers, so we don’t have access to resources of any sort. When they release us, they release us; most of us have few skills and no savings, but it’s still on us to find housing and a job. Out of desperation, many exonerees turn to crime.
I’d promised to live my life for God and I knew He was calling me to help other exonerees. So, last October, two months after my release, I founded a non-profit called Innocence Maintained. In short, our mission is to aid in the exoneration and reentry process. We connect innocent inmates to quality attorneys and investigators; then, after their release, we help them reacclimate.
Things are really taking off. A few months ago, I fundraised and bought a house for exonerees in Detroit. The house, which will officially open in two months, is a space for residents to receive counseling and gain marketable skills. If we get enough donations, rent will be completely free.
As if the house and non-profit aren’t enough, God has also blessed me with a real estate company, a landscaping company, and a snow removal company. Through these blessings, I’m able to employ other exonerees. I’m excited about what we’re doing and I know that this is only the beginning. I want to see homes like this in every major city!
My life is proof that, though God hates suffering, He works through it. Without those years in prison, I wouldn’t have the faith that I now have. I wouldn’t have this testimony and I wouldn’t have my mission! Because of my experience, I can live boldly, knowing that my life is blessed and that He has my back. It can be hard to trust Him, especially when you’re in the throes of suffering, but I’m here to tell you – hold on. He hears your prayers.
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