Michigan Innocence Clinic client Kenneth Webb was exonerated and released on November 3 after 36 years of incarceration for a murder he did not commit. Judge Darlene O'Brien of the Washtenaw County Circuit Court granted the joint motion to vacate and dismiss Webb’s conviction for the 1986 murder of Mark Blaske.
“This exoneration was only possible because of the cooperation of, and thorough investigation conducted by, the Washtenaw County Prosecutor's Office Conviction Integrity Unit, headed by Lindsay Abramson and formerly led by Frances Walters,” said David Moran, ’91, clinical professor of law and co-founder of the Michigan Innocence Clinic.
Webb was pulled over for driving under the influence in Ohio in July 1986. Webb, who was highly intoxicated and had a severe history of mental illness, told the trooper that he feared he was wanted for killing a pharmacist in Michigan. This led the Ohio police to contact the Washtenaw County sheriff, who was investigating the murder of Blaske, who was shot to death in his pharmacy in Ypsilanti, Michigan, a month earlier.
Two Washtenaw County detectives who interrogated Webb in Ohio claimed that after they turned off the tape recorder, Webb gave a full confession during that gap in the recording.
At trial, witnesses who saw a man lurking at the pharmacy identified him as Webb. Those identifications and the supposed confession led to Webb’s conviction.
“But a big problem for the prosecution was Mr. Webb's alibi,” Moran said.
Multiple witnesses who worked at the Social Security Administration (SSA) office in Ann Arbor confirmed that Webb was there until after 10 a.m., and documents from the SSA supported the alibi. Meanwhile, the prosecution’s witnesses had claimed they saw Webb loitering at the pharmacy around 10 a.m. The murder occurred at 10:39 a.m.
“Ypsilanti is about a 20-minute drive from downtown Ann Arbor, and Mr. Webb didn't have a car at that time, so a bus ride would have taken even longer,” Moran said. “In short, there's no way Mr. Webb could have left the SSA office and made it to the pharmacy in time to commit the crime, much less in time to lurk at the pharmacy for a half hour beforehand.”
In addition, fingerprints left at the pharmacy did not match Webb or anyone who worked there.
Nonetheless, the purported, unrecorded confession proved sufficient to render a guilty verdict: Webb was convicted in 1987 and sentenced to life without parole.
The Michigan Innocence Clinic took on Webb’s case earlier this year based on new evidence that surfaced post-conviction.
First, a new witness testified that he had a conversation with Webb at a coffee shop right after Webb left the SSA office, thus extending his alibi even later.
Second, both detectives who interrogated Webb in Ohio were severely discredited shortly after the trial. One was fired after he was caught altering an interrogation transcript in another case, and the other pretended to be Native American so he could gain access to Native American children and molest them. (He later was convicted and sent to prison.)
Third, facts in Webb's supposed confession that the prosecutor argued “only the killer would know” had, in fact, been published in the Ann Arbor News.
“In addition, we and the [Conviction Integrity Unit] agreed that the increased understanding of false confessions—and how mentally ill, intoxicated people are especially likely to falsely confess—would seriously undermine the reliability of the confession even if Mr. Webb had actually given one,” Moran said.
Established in 2009, the Michigan Innocence Clinic is the first exclusively non-DNA innocence clinic in the country. Since its inception, the Michigan Innocence Clinic has successfully won the release of 35 men and women who had been wrongfully convicted of crimes and served anywhere from a few months to 46 years in prison.
Student-attorneys Brittany Warren and Nia Vogel are pictured with Moran and Webb. Previous student-attorneys Michael Pflueger, Alex DiLalla, and Ben Cross also worked on Webb’s case.