DETROIT (WXYZ) — It’s November 1994.
Within six months, three men housed on the 9th floor lock-up at Detroit Police Headquarters will be convicted of separate murders that most of the evidence showed they had nothing to do with.
The first was Larry Smith, then Ramon Ward and then Bernard Howard.
“It was the homicide section in the 90s and early 2000s frankly running rogue,” said Wolf Mueller, Howard’s attorney. “Doing what they wanted to do.”
Each man would spend more than a quarter century in prison until just the last year, when Wayne County’s Prosecutor said none of them belonged there.
Smith, Ward and Howard had much more in common than just bad luck. Their cases were handled by the same team of officers within DPD, known as squad 7, and each of their convictions relied, at least in part, on supposed jail-house confessions that decades later were deemed not credible.
Larry Smith was still a teenager in 1994 when he got a call to come to police headquarters.
“A guy was murdered and someone else seen a car," Smith recalled, “And from there, my name came up as being a friend of the car that was seen.”
No witnesses saw Smith at the crime scene, there was virtually no evidence linking him to the murder and when he was interviewed by a detective, he insisted there’d been a mistake.
But while Smith was held in lockup on the 9th floor, an inmate named Edward Allen suddenly came forward claiming that Smith had confessed to him.
“Did you ever have a conversation with Edward Allen?” asked Channel 7’s Ross Jones
“No, I never knew him,” Smith said. “Never met him before.”
Allen would testify at Smith’s trial helping to secure his conviction, and he wasn’t the only informant on the 9th floor.
In Ramon Ward’s murder trial, a different inmate claimed he heard him confess to a double murder. The same thing happened in Bernard Howard’s case, too. The mysterious jailhouse confessions were all used at trial.
Monica Childs is a former Detroit Police detective who was involved in all three cases.
In an interview this month, Childs acknowledged she was “leery” about jail house witnesses and said that in Smith and Ward’s cases, she had doubts about key evidence from almost the beginning.
“I just thought the case for Larry Smith wasn’t tight enough,” Childs said. “I thought we had time if we really thought he was ‘the person.’ I thought we had time to work it. But then in a lot of ways, I was naive.”
Childs said she never believed Edward Allen, the jailhouse snitch who testified that Smith admitted to murder.
“Did you ever have any conversations about (Allen’s) credibility?” asked Channel 7’s Ross Jones. “I just said I don’t believe him. That’s all I said,” Childs said.
She said she recalled telling the prosecutor on the case: “I wouldn’t use him as a witness.”
Allen’s testimony was arguably the most critical piece of evidence in the case. 27 years after he took the stand, Wayne County’s Conviction Integrity Unit called Allen “unreliable.” Larry Smith was released from prison in February.
Smith wonders why Childs waited decades to voice her doubts.
“Never did you ever come forward and say hey, I don’t feel comfortable with the testimony that was given against Larry Smith,” he said. “And that would have changed the quality of my life, my daughter’s life, my mother’s life.”
Throughout the 1990s, jail house snitches were relied on often at DPD. So often, in fact, that Wayne County prosecutors grew concerned inmates were just saying what police wanted to hear in exchange for better treatment and wrote a 1995 memo urging an end to the practice.
“When you give people an incentive to produce something and they’re in a vulnerable state themselves, what do you think is going to happen?” said Smith’s attorney Jarrett Adams. “They’ll find something.”
Detective Childs also took statements and confessions in these cases, some of which were later claimed to have been coerced.
Bernard Howard, who struggled to read, said he signed a typed confession only after Childs said he’d be let go if he did.
Childs said she has no memory of Howard’s case but denies she would have made that promise.
She does remember taking a confession from Ramon Ward. It came one day after he insisted he had nothing to do with the murder she was looking into.
“When I saw (Ward) again, nobody is that drastically different in 24 hours. Something happened to him,” Childs recalled. “He never said, he never would tell me. He just kept saying: ‘I want to get out of here.’”
Childs told 7 Action News that she didn’t believe his confession and wondered why his story changed.
“That’s not a damn confession! That wasn’t (expletive)!” Childs said. Adding later: “But, okay, he’s been advised of his rights. He knows whatever he says could be used against him. And afterwards I said in my head: ‘I should never have written that down. Never.’ Because in my heart of hearts, really didn’t believe he did it.”
But on the witness stand, Childs never mentioned her doubts because she said she was not asked.
“If the lawyer had said, on the stand, Detective Childs, do you believe Ramon Ward committed this murder, what would you have said?” Jones asked.
“I would have had to say based on this information, no,” Childs said.
Ramon Ward was convicted of murder at 18. He would be exonerated through the Conviction Integrity Unit at age 45.
Childs said of Ward’s case: “In all my homicide career, that was that one case that was so frustrating. What can I do to help him? What can I do?”
Childs said that while she did not contact anyone over concerns about Ward’s conviction, she did cooperate in 2018 when she was approached by a private investigator looking into his case.
She said she ultimately cooperated with the Conviction Integrity Unit, at least with respect to Ward's case.
Childs insists her actions in these cases were above board and stressed that she was not always aware of the conduct of her colleagues in squad 7.
Two years after Ramon Ward was sent to prison, Childs filed a whistleblower suit against DPD claiming that, in an unrelated murder case, her boss illegally obtained a confession and then told Childs to lie about it.
The case settled for an undisclosed sum.
“Do I believe that Monica Childs was a part of a bigger system and she was just a link in that chat? Absolutely I do,” said attorney Jarrett Allen. “But I can’t consider her a victim when she’s acknowledged to yourself as well that she suspected that the statements that she obtained and she used to obtain guilty verdicts, she had suspicion all along.”
Today, Larry Smith, Ramon Ward and Bernard Howard are savoring their new found freedom, convinced that sitting in prison today are other men with stories like their own, waiting to be told.
“I’m a victim of it and there’s other victims of it,” Smith said. “There’s no doubt in my mind.”
Contact 7 Investigator Ross Jones at email@example.com or at (248) 827-9466.