DETROIT (WXYZ) - A few minutes into Mother's Day, May 9, 1999, a white minivan came flying into a gas station at Cadillac and East Warren. Lisa Kindred, a 35-year-old mother of four, was in a panic. She got out, took a few steps and collapsed on the pavement.
Three of her kids, including a 10-day-old baby, were in the back seat. Kindred had been shot. A single bullet through the driver's side window pierced her heart and killed her.
Homicide detectives did what they often did back then, a practice well documented in a series of articles by Joe Swickard at the Detroit Free Press.
Cops swarmed the neighborhood, arrested people and squeezed them for information.
"That's exactly what they did. They rounded up the neighborhood boys and threatened them," said Johnson's sister, Raynette.
"They told them that if they didn't tell who did it that they would be charged with it," she said.
A few hours after the murder, police told channel 7's Kimberly Craig they had it all figured out.
"Detroit police say Lisa was approached by two men who may have attempted to rob her," Craig reported the day of the murder.
A robbery gone-bad, they said, and three days later the case was closed. 24-year-old Justly Johnson, known as Stank, and 20-year-old Kendrick Scott, known as Snooky, were arrested and charged with murder. Both were convicted and sentenced to life with no parole. They were convicted on what critics say was very thin evidence. There were no eyewitnesses. No murder weapon was found, no physical evidence at all.
The case was built on the word of two young guys from the neighborhood, Antonio Burnette and Raymond Jackson. Both said they heard Johnson and Scott talking about "hitting a lick," street slang for committing a robbery. They said after the murder they heard Johnson and Scott saying they "messed up and had to shoot."
"So these guys are taken to the police station, they're interrogated, accused of the crime, and they point the finger at Justly basically to get themselves out of trouble," said Byron Lichstein, an attorney with the Wisconsin Innocence Project.
Now, 10 years later, there's powerful evidence suggesting at least one of the convicted killers, Justly Johnson, may be innocent. Johnson has lawyers from the Wisconsin Innocence Project and the Michigan Innocence Clinic fighting to get his case back into court.
"There's other new evidence that implicates someone else. And that someone else is someone who should have been the primary suspect, ah, probably from the beginning," said Lichstein.
That person, according to court filings from the Innocence Project, is Lisa Kindred's husband Will. While there's no witness or physical evidence tying Kindred to the crime, the Innocence Project discovered he had a history of domestic violence.
Records show Roseville Police were called to the Kindred home 17 times in four years for domestic incidents. Will was convicted twice for physically abusing Lisa's 7-year-old son from a prior marriage. He was also arrested for an assault on Lisa.
"In one case, he punched her, lifted her up by the neck, threw her down onto the toilet, all the while he's threatening to kill her," said Lichstein.
In that case, police records say, Lisa fled with the kids. As she was heading down Gratiot toward the police station, Will pulled up along side her and said: "maybe I should just take out the whole family."
According to reports, police twice confiscated rifles from Kindred's home during domestic calls. Both were .22's, the same caliber used in Lisa's murder. The Innocence Project also discovered that Lisa had filed for divorce a year before her murder and had gotten a personal protection order.
Surprisingly, there is no indication that Detroit Police ever looked into Will Kindred's background.
"It's very sloppy police work, absolutely sloppy police work," said retired Detroit Homicide Detective Mike Carlisle.
"You always have to take a close look at the spouse," he said.
"Based on what I've read in the file, the statement that was taken from the husband, there is no way in the world I would have cleared him as a suspect," said Carlisle.
But police did clear Will Kindred almost immediately. Detectives took a one-and-a-half page statement and never even asked about his relationship with Lisa.
Thirty-three days after the murder, police cleared Kindred to collect on his wife's life insurance policy.
Will Kindred told Action News that Lisa had the insurance through her job, and he didn't even know about the policy until of couple weeks after the murder when her company called him. He says the insurance payout was sizeable, but he can't recall the exact amount.
Even if Will Kindred had nothing to do with his wife's murder, the Innocence Project says police should have investigated his background, and the information about his violent past should have been brought up as a defense at Justly Johnson's trial.
"Had it been investigated at the time, it might have completely exonerated him. Trying to investigate this kind of thing ten years after the fact is very difficult," said Lichstein.
Will Kindred was at the scene when his wife was shot. The shooting didn't happen at the gas station, it happened two blocks away where Lisa was parked on the street. They had made a detour on their way home from a drive-in movie.
Will kindred told police he had taken Lisa and the three kids to the drive-in. On the way home to Roseville, around 11:30 p.m., he stopped by his brother-in-law's house in Detroit, unannounced, to talk about buying a motorcycle from him. According to police reports, Kindred left Lisa and the kids sitting in the van for a half hour, and at one point, she went to the house and told him they needed to get going.
"He keeps putting her off. Well, I'm not done talking with him. Now we have somebody who walks up and shoots the wife through the driver's side window," said Carlisle.
Mortally wounded, Lisa speeds off in the minivan with her three kids in back, and goes to the gas station two blocks away looking for help.
Will Kindred told police he was walking out of the house just as the shooting happened. He said he heard a loud noise like a car door slamming, saw his wife speeding down the street, and started running through the vacant lot across the street.
Kindred says he chased the person through the vacant lot, down an alley and lost them about a block away. He couldn't give police any description.
"Why are you chasing this person? Number two, what are you going to do when you catch him?" asked Carlisle.
"Never got answered," he said.
Kindred says his brother-in-law, who had gone looking for Lisa, discovered the scene at the gas station and called him. Police reports say Kindred then went to the gas station in his mother's car, took the 10-day-old baby out of the van and followed the ambulance to the hospital.
When I called Will Kindred, he flatly denied taking the baby out of the car. He told me it was Lisa's idea to go to his brother-in-law's house to talk about buying the motorcycle. And he thought his family would be safe since they were right out in front of the house.
"The whole story just sounded crazy, you know," said Johnson's sister Raynette.
"That time of night, with your newborn baby. Nobody does that."
"You don't have to be a genius to go over this file and see the red flags that pop up," Carlisle told Action News.
"You just have to be a normal person who looks at it and says, ‘well this doesn't make sense.' Well if it doesn't make sense, find out why, ‘till it finally does make sense."
After the trial, both witnesses against Justly Johnson recanted their statements, according to sworn affidavits. They said they lied because the police threatened them. Lawyers for the Innocence Project say testimony from both witnesses was wildly inconsistent in court, and they had other issues.
"One of them admits that he was extraordinarily drunk and high at the time of the thing that he witnesses," said Lichstein.
"The other is a schizophrenic, admitted at the time he was experiencing visual auditory delusions," he says.
Judge Prentis Edwards found Justly Johnson guilty after a two-day trial. There was no jury. Judge Edwards acknowledged the case was circumstantial but said he believed the two witnesses.
Johnson and his lawyers have gone back to Wayne County Circuit court three times asking for a new hearing. Three times the case has gone back to Judge Edwards and he's turned them down. Johnson has also lost twice at the Michigan Court of Appeals.
Byron Lichstein says the Innocence Project isn't asking anyone to fling the prison doors open and let Justly Johnson out. They just want a fresh set of eyes on the case to look at everything that's come out since Justly's conviction.
"He's serving the rest of his life in prison for this murder that he always said he did not commit," said Lichstein.
"I think the least the system can do is at least give him a chance to present what hasn't been presented yet. And I don't know why he's being denied even the chance to put that case on in court."
William Kindred denies any involvement in the murder but says he understands why the Innocence Project is focused on him because of the domestic violence, which he says was exaggerated by police. Judge Prentis Edwards declined comment because the case could come back before him.
The Wayne County Prosecutor's office says it's worth noting that Justly Johnson was found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt and has lost many, many appeals and never prevailed.
Johnson has an appeal pending before the Michigan Supreme Court. If he fails there, the Innocence Project will be heading to federal court where the paperwork has already been filed.