A Detroit man, wrongfully incarcerated for 15 years, is a free man after long-hidden DNA evidence cleared him of two sexual assault and kidnapping charges. A chance review of his case by a prosecutor in 2019 led to the discovery of a lab report which contained vindicating proof that was never shared with the court.
On Wednesday, April 27, a Michigan 3rd Circuit Court judge dismissed Terance Calhoun’s 2007 rape and abduction convictions, which found him guilty of violating a 13-year-old girl and attempting to sexually assault a 15-year-old girl in two incidents in the fall of 2006.
The judge’s decision to have him immediately released from the Woodland Center Correctional Facility to his family, came after reviewing new information provided by Valerie Newman, a lawyer within the Wayne County prosecutor’s office Conviction Integrity Unit.
Newman’s job is to canvass cases that fall under her office’s jurisdiction with a probability of wrongful imprisonment.
In 2019, while combing over cases, she discovered several flaws in Calhoun’s case, specifically evidence of genetic material from a condom used during the assault of one of the victims that did not match Calhoun. (The evidence did match another man who has not been identified but prosecutors say is being charged as the suspect.)
After noticing the errors in the case, Newman contacted the State Appellate Defender Office, known as SADO. SADO, in turn, contacted the WMU-Cooley Law School Innocence Project, and together the three bodies helped exonerate the man.
Another red flag the prosecutors discovered was the composite of the attacker, given by the women. They described their attacker as having braids and a puzzle tattoo. At the time, the 20-year-old Calhoun had neither.
Despite this, both victims misidentified Calhoun in the two separate lineups and in court as the man who attacked them.
Calhoun’s attorney, Michael Mittlestat, an assistant defender with State Appellate Defender Office (SADO) said, “If there’s one thing about the system people need to realize it’s that innocent people plead and eyewitness misidentifications are real and false confessions are real.”
“People need to understand that witness identifications can be faulty and have been proven to be faulty,” he continued. “They are not as reliable as laypeople and many people outside the criminal justice system believe.”
Newman said of the case, “There were so many things missed along the way.”
One of the “things” missed is news about the condom, discovered a few months after Calhoun was sent to prison, was never shared with his attorney. Without this information, the now-35-year-old spent a decade and a half in a prison cell for a crime he did not commit.
“Today is about the myriad of things that went wrong that caused the wrongful conviction of an innocent person,” Newman told Judge Kelly Ramsey, the official who approved her request for criminal erasure. “There’s so many things that happened in this case that are troubling. While this is ostensibly a DNA exclusion case, there is a lot more going on here that supports Mr. Calhoun’s innocence.”
The team had questions around the 2007 case and Calhoun’s defense strategy. His former attorney, Ilsa Draznin, had him plead no contest to the charges. The reasoning behind this move cannot be fully understood because the lawyer is now deceased. However, SADO’s report may give clues.
The report stated, “Police failed to consider Mr. Calhoun’s intellectual limitations. Neither a lawyer nor his parents were present when he gave what police claimed were incriminating statements, and his interrogation was not recorded.”
Mittlestat said, “this is an example of how vulnerable people can get caught up in the system and unfairly convicted.”
“They don’t have oftentimes the sophistication, the resources to work with their lawyers and defend themselves and communicate with their lawyers, and they become victims of a system that opens cases and closes cases in an expedient way that turns out to be wrong later,” the attorney said. “It’s just unfortunate that Mr. Calhoun really was one of those very vulnerable people.”
Originally, Calhoun was scheduled for exoneration Friday, April 22, but that was stopped because a member of the Detroit Police Department came forward saying he had information relevant to the case. Police Officer Robert Kane, one of the officials who testified at Calhoun’s preliminary examination in November 2006, said he had a binder of information proving Calhoun deserved to be in jail.
At the time, Judge Ramsey said, “It is my belief that it is my role and responsibility to ensure the court’s role is to ensure that justice is done and the court is also mindful of the need to ensure finality in its orders.”
“Given the circumstances before this court, there needs to be an opportunity, due diligence that exceeds whatever happened this morning to whenever Mr. Kane hopefully went to the prosecutor’s office.”
However, Kane’s information did not trump the new discovery.
Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy said in a statement about the case and her team’s work, “A series of unfortunate events and a lot of very hard work by quite a few people led to my decision to exonerate Mr. Calhoun.”
“The decision, in this case, was the culmination of years of long work on this and unrelated cases,” she continued. “We will leave no stone unturned to get justice for defendants like Mr. Calhoun.”
Calhoun was originally sentenced to a minimum of 17 years. He served 15. When the judge set him free, he didn’t say a word. He just smiled, as the judge wished him luck in his future.
Calhoun will not be eligible for a million-dollar payout like others who’ve had their wrongful convictions tossed out. Michigan laws, should he sue, state monetary compensation for the wrong conviction may not exceed $50,000 for every year he was locked up, totaling $750,000. There is no word on if he will exercise this opportunity for an award.