DETROIT, MI – The Wayne County Prosecutors Office has dismissed murder charges against Aaron Salter on the basis of mistaken identification.
Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy issued the following statement:
“Aaron Salter’s case was reviewed by our Conviction Integrity Unit. We must ascertain we have done everything to assure we have a case we can prove beyond a reasonable doubt. In the cases where there is a challenge to a conviction, we take it equally as seriously.
The Aaron Salter case has been thoroughly reviewed, investigated, and considered. It has been determined that the case against Mr. Salter was based primarily on mistaken identification by the main witness in the case. I am pleased to announce today that this 15-year old homicide conviction against Aaron Salter will finally be dismissed. The system failed him. Nothing I can say will bring back the years of his life spent in prison.
Justice is truly being served today. We will recommend to the Michigan Attorney General’s Office that Mr. Salter receive wrongful conviction compensation. We sincerely wish him well.
I would like to thank Valerie Newman, head of the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Conviction Integrity Unit, CIU attorney Carole Stanyar, who reviewed this case, and CIU investigator Patricia Little. I also want to thank the Federal Defenders Office Attorneys Colleen Fitzharris, Loren Khogali, Jonathan Epstein and their investigators for their work on behalf of Mr. Salter.
Statement of Federal Defenders Office
A team of lawyers, investigators, and paralegals at the Federal Defender Office (FDO) in Detroit, Michigan have been representing Aaron Salter in his federal habeas corpus proceedings since 2008. Throughout the course of the representation, FDO investigators and attorneys uncovered previously undisclosed evidence and interviewed witnesses who could confirm Mr. Salter’s alibi at the time of the shooting. They found and interviewed a witness who was the sole eyewitness at trial, who stated that he was never certain Mr. Salter was the shooter. In 2013, a prisoner contacted the FDO attorneys claiming to have personal knowledge of the shooting. After following up on that lead, the FDO attorneys hired a former FBI polygrapher, to conduct a polygraph examination of Aaron Salter, which he passed.
Mr. Salter did not receive relief from the Michigan state courts. In December 2017, the federal habeas proceedings resumed. Shortly afterwards, the Conviction Integrity Unit was established. In March 2018, attorneys from the FDO submitted an application to the CIU, which included all of the materials discovered to date. Once the CIU agreed to review Mr. Salter’s case, the team from the FDO worked with the CIU. In the end, all of the new evidence demonstrated that Mr. Salter was not present at the shooting, nor was he the shooter.
This was a team effort by everyone at the FDO. Representing Aaron Salter has been an honor. His optimism and kindness have been truly inspiring.
On August 6, 2003 at 1:30 a.m., four people were shot while sitting on a porch on Park Grove Street on Detroit’s east side. Two shooters approached the scene on foot, from around the corner near an intersection, and shot at the victims through a privacy fence on the front porch. Willie Thomas, 36, of Detroit was killed, a 21-year-old man was critically injured, a 24-year-old male was shot once in the elbow, and a 36-year-old woman escaped unharmed.
After investigation by the Detroit Police Homicide Unit, Aaron Salter was charged with first-degree premeditated murder, two counts of assault with intent to murder, and possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony. During the December 2003 jury trial in the case, the principal and sole identifying witness was the surviving 24-year-old male. He claimed at trial that he was able to identify Aaron Salter as one of two shooters responsible for this crime. The defendant did not testify in his own defense. On December 8, 2003, Salter was found guilty of First Degree Murder, two counts of Assault with Intent to Murder and Felony Firearm and on January 4, 2004, he was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
Procedural History of the Case
Mr. Salter’s convictions were affirmed on appeal in 2005 by the Michigan Court of Appeals (COA). In 2009, the Michigan Supreme Court (MSC) denied leave to appeal. Salter filed several motions for relief from judgment in the trial court that were also denied by the trial court and later, by the COA and the MSC. However, during both his direct appeal and his collateral appeal, much of the new evidence (discovered by the CIU and by FDO) was not yet known. Mr. Salter has also filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus under 28 U.S.C. 2254, raising, among other things, that he has passed a polygraph, and claiming that identification procedures were unduly suggestive. Consideration of that petition was deferred so that the CIU could consider Mr. Salter’s claim of innocence.
Conviction Integrity Unit
In January 2018, the Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU) was formed in by Prosecutor Kym Worthy to investigate claims of innocence, to determine whether there is clear and convincing new evidence that the convicted defendant was not the person who committed the offense.
In March 2018 Federal Defenders Office attorneys Colleen Fitzharris and Jonathan Epstein requested that the CIU review the Salter case. Assistant Prosecutor Valerie Newman, CIU Director, determined that the case was appropriate for review and assigned CIU attorney Carole Stanyar and Detective Patricia Little to investigate the case.
Investigation in the case has now revealed that the 24-year-old male’s identification was mistaken; no other evidence supported the conviction of this defendant. There were considerable difficulties with the 24-year-old’s identification of Aaron Salter as the perpetrator. He did not know the shooter. He was viewing the shooters at night through a small space in a privacy screen. He viewed the shooters only momentarily, under the duress of the shooting, while he was trying to flee, with his back turned to the gun fire.
The description he gave of the shooter — a black male, 26-27 years old, 5’7″, 150-170 pounds, low-cut hair, dark clothing – bears no resemblance to Aaron Salter: 6’3″, 250 pounds, and a stand out high school football star at home from college on summer break. The 24-year-old was shown three photo arrays by the officer in charge of this case, and he picked out three people who “resembled” the two shooters. The 24-year-old witness who is now 39-years-old was extensively re-interviewed, and he acknowledged not ever being sure of his identification of Aaron Salter.
Police witnesses were interviewed, and all police files were reviewed. The circumstances surrounding the showing of photo arrays were thoroughly investigated. When interviewed recently by the CIU, the investigating officer recalled the case as being very weak. This was the first time WCPO was informed of the investigating officer’s opinion about the case.
The transcripts and other records were reviewed by CIU attorneys, and it was determined that the testimony of the 24-year-old witness in the People’s case resulted in Salter’s conviction. Attempts were made to interview all of the surviving victims of this crime, as well as the family members of the deceased and the defendant. The sister of the deceased stated that she never believed that Aaron Salter killed her brother because they had grown up in the same neighborhood and Salter was always kind to her brother. Mr. Salter’s alibi witnesses (mostly family and friends who never testified) were also interviewed, and his whereabouts on the days surrounding the homicide were investigated. Salter’s trial defense attorney was interviewed and his file reviewed. In addition, Aaron Salter passed a polygraph examination by a former FBI polygrapher approved by this office.
Dismissal of Charges
The CIU investigation has established that the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office cannot prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Aaron Salter committed this crime. The testimony of the sole identifying witness has now been significantly undermined. He now acknowledges he was never sure of his identification of Aaron Salter. Salter never fit the description of the shorter shooter, and there is no evidence which supports that theory.
Based upon the evidence, this case exceeds the CIU threshold standard of clear and convincing evidence. Salter was not involved in the murder of Willie Thomas, or the assaults on the other victims. An order issued by Judge Annette Berry has been entered vacating Salter’s convictions and sentences, and dismissing the charges of first-degree premeditated murder, two counts of assault with intent to murder, and felony firearm. Mr. Salter’s federal habeas petition will also be dismissed today. Salter is expected to be released from the Chippewa Correction Facility in Kincheloe, Michigan today.“