Judge overturns convictions for man sentenced to life for Michigan fire that killed 5 children

·4 min read

DETROIT — A judge ruled a man who has spent 15 years in prison for a fire that killed five children was deprived a fair trial, overturning Juwan Deering’s murder and arson convictions Tuesday.

Deering, 50, will remain behind bars, at least for now, while prosecutors decide whether to dismiss the charges or retry him.

Oakland County Circuit Judge Jeffery Matis denied a request from prosecutors and defense attorneys to release Deering on bond during Tuesday’s hearing.

Matis explained that the charges against Deering have not been dropped and the serious charges he still faces could result in life in prison.

Deering appeared in Oakland County Circuit Court wearing a face mask, handcuffs and blue jail garb.

“Today’s ruling is that defendant’s constitutional rights were violated depriving him of a fair trial,” Matis said. “And he is entitled, under the U.S. Constitution and state and federal law, to receive a fair trial.”

Juwan Deering is escorted into the courtroom of Judge Jeffery Matis at the Oakland County Circuit Court in Pontiac before his hearing on Tuesday, September 21, 2021.
Juwan Deering is escorted into the courtroom of Judge Jeffery Matis at the Oakland County Circuit Court in Pontiac before his hearing on Tuesday, September 21, 2021.

In 2006, a jury convicted Deering of arson and five counts of felony murder for the fire in Royal Oak Township, Michigan and he was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. Deering maintains his innocence.

Oakland County Prosecutor Karen McDonald appeared in court Tuesday and spoke to the judge. She said what happened in Deering’s case undermines the community’s faith and trust in the criminal justice system.

“In this case, evidence was withheld,” McDonald said. “There was prosecutorial misconduct.”

Critical evidence was buried in prosecutor and investigator files, she said.

Oakland County Prosecutor Karen McDonald talks about Juwan Deering in the courtroom of Judge Jeffery Matis at the Oakland County Circuit Court in Pontiac during Deering's hearing on Tuesday, September 21, 2021.
Oakland County Prosecutor Karen McDonald talks about Juwan Deering in the courtroom of Judge Jeffery Matis at the Oakland County Circuit Court in Pontiac during Deering's hearing on Tuesday, September 21, 2021.

McDonald said she will decide whether Deering will face another trial by the time of the next hearing in the case. That is expected to happen next week.

“The big hurdle is cleared,” Imran Syed, co-director of the Michigan Innocence Clinic and Deering’s attorney, said after the hearing. “We’re very pleased about that.”

Syed spoke to his client after the hearing and said Deering was disappointed by the bond ruling. Syed added that Deering said he's staying strong.

Both prosecutors and defense attorneys agreed that Deering’s convictions should be overturned. The two sides also agreed Deering should be freed on bond and made arguments in court documents before the hearing.

“There is no doubt that Juwan Deering was deprived of his constitutional right to a fair trial. That is an injustice that must be corrected,” prosecutors said in a court document filed Monday. “Given the current lack of evidence, every additional day Mr. Deering spends in prison furthers that injustice.”

(L to R) Juwan Deering listens along with his attorney Imran Syed of the Michigan Innocence Clinic and Oakland County Prosecutor Karen McDonald in the courtroom of Judge Jeffery Matis at the Oakland County Circuit Court in Pontiac on Tuesday, September 21, 2021.
(L to R) Juwan Deering listens along with his attorney Imran Syed of the Michigan Innocence Clinic and Oakland County Prosecutor Karen McDonald in the courtroom of Judge Jeffery Matis at the Oakland County Circuit Court in Pontiac on Tuesday, September 21, 2021.

If Deering gets out of prison, he has several possible job prospects, including working at an auto parts plant, defense attorneys said.

The Michigan Innocence Clinic had fire investigators review the case, which raised questions about how the fire started. Deering’s lawyers contend faulty science was used and it can’t be deemed arson. Analysis indicates the fire most likely started inside the house, not on the porch as the government argued during the trial, defense attorneys said.

The initial fire investigator stands by his opinion it was arson.

A special prosecutor hired by McDonald reviewed the case this year and issued a report with her findings last month.

According to the report by special prosecutor Beth Morrow, there was newly discovered evidence in the case. That includes information about the credibility of three jailhouse informants who testified against Deering and an interview with one of the children who was in the house when the fire started. The interview, conducted during the investigation, was recorded on video shortly after the fire.

Only part of the recorded interview was found in the prosecutor’s file. The second half was missing, the special prosecutor’s report said.

The boy, who was 13 at the time, did not testify during the trial. He was shown a photo lineup in the portion of the interview not turned over to the defense, the report said. The boy said there were two people named Juwan. The person he recognized in the photo lived in his neighborhood and was not the person he heard outside before the fire.

There’s no evidence the prosecutor’s office or the trial prosecutor knew about the photo lineup or the second half of the interview, which was attended by a detective from the sheriff's office, the report said.

Testimony from the three jailhouse informants was instrumental during the trial. Jurors were told the informants didn’t receive anything for their assistance and were motivated to testify because of the five innocent children who died.

“The jury was materially misled about all three jailhouse informants' relationships with the (Oakland County Sheriff’s Office) and (Oakland County Prosecutor’s Office), their motives and their credibility,” the report said.

Follow Elisha Anderson on Twitter: @elishaanderson

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Convictions vacated for man sentenced to life for fire that killed 5

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