U-of-M Lawyers fighting to free second man convicted on slim evidence in '99 Mother's Day murder

(WXYZ) DETROIT - A mother's prayers have been answered. She has new hope that her son will be freed from prison thanks to the Michigan Innocence Clinic and the 7 Action News Investigators.

Innocence lawyers think they have a good shot at winning a new trial for Kendrick Scott, based in part on a new witness The Investigators found two years ago. The case involves a 1999 Mother's Day murder that has two men serving life for a crime they swear they did not commit.


In our earlier reports we told you about the work lawyers at the University of Michigan are doing to help Justly Johnson prove his innocence.  Now they've taken on the case of his co-defendant Kendrick Scott, filing a motion that they hope will lead to a new trial.

For Scott's seventy-year-old mother, Ernestine Smith, this is a God send.

"Do you think you'll ever see the day when he walks out of there?" asked Investigator Scott Lewis.

"I've been praying for that ever since the day that this happened," Smith replied.

On the end table in Smith's living room sits a tattered bible and a crucifix.  God has been her strength.

"They took my child and he didn't do anything.  I could understand if he had did it.  But he didn't do that," Smith said emphatically.

Smith says she talks to her son on the phone daily but hasn't visited for two years because she has serious health problems. 

Smith says she worries about her son because is bi-polar. She says he doesn't get proper medication in prison and as a result, he's acted out and has tangled with prison guards.

"They had beat Kendrick senseless and put him in that hole. Kendrick stayed in the hole (for) two years," Smith said.

Fifty miles from Smith's apartment, on the University of Michigan campus, student lawyers toil away, looking for angles to free prisoners who they believe were wrongly convicted. Lauren Rosen is one of two students working Scott and Johnson's case.

"There's nothing more worthy, I think, to fight for than the freedom of two individuals who are serving time for a crime they didn't commit," Rosen said.

The crime was a horrific one. Lisa Kindred was gunned down sitting in her minivan on Mother's Day, 1999.  Her three young kids were in the car, including a newborn.

Scott and Johnson were convicted on the thinnest of evidence. Two young men from the neighborhood told police they heard Johnson and Scott talking about "hitting a lick", street slang that has multiple meanings, including committing a robbery.

Both witnesses later recanted and said the police pressured them to finger Scott and Johnson.

Now the Innocence Clinic has filed a motion seeking a new trial for Scott.

"The fact that the evidence that convicted him is completely gone has to weigh very heavily in this case, because we're talking about a case where there were two very, very sketchy witnesses," said Imran Syed, a staff attorney at the Innocence Clinic.

And then there is the new witness uncovered by the 7 Action News Investigators in 2011; Lisa Kindred's eight-year-old son CJ Skinner who was in the front seat when she was shot.  We tracked him down in a Pennsylvania prison where he is serving time for perjury.    

Skinner told Scott Lewis in a telephone interview that he saw the man who shot his mother and that he would still be able to identify him today if shown a picture of the shooter taken near the time of the murder.

Skinner said the police never questioned him after his mother's murder and they never asked him to view a photo lineup.  He said he did not know Johnson or Scott and his only interest was in seeing that justice was done in his mother's murder.

After our interview with CJ Skinner aired, lawyers from the Innocence Clinic traveled to Pennsylvania and did their own photo lineup that included pictures of Johnson and Scott taken in 1999.  Skinner said none of the men pictured were the man that he saw shoot his mom.

Innocence Lawyers in Wisconsin and Michigan have filed numerous appeals on behalf of Justly Johnson.  All were heard by Judge Prentiss Edwards who presided over their original trial. 

Every appeal was rejected. But Edwards recently retired so a new judge will be assigned to Scott's case.

"As long as you get a fresh set of eyes on it, a judge who's fair-minded as I think most of them tend to be, we feel really good about our chance," Syed said.

And Scott's mom, who has suffered through 14 years of hopelessness, is ever so grateful for the efforts of the Innocence Clinic.

"I think they're wonderful and they're concerned about him and trying to help him and I think you are a jewel, because you are trying to help him," Smith told Scott Lewis.

And smith says her son, who supposedly gunned down a young mom on Mother's Day, never, ever forgets his own mom on Mother's Day.

She showed Scott Lewis her latest gift. A heart-shaped pillow crocheted by a fellow inmate bearing the words "loving mother".

The Court of Appeals has had Justly Johnson's latest appeal for nine months. Lawyers expect to hear something on that soon and are optimistic about getting a new hearing in Scott's case. 

If either man is granted a new trial, the other will also likely get one, innocence lawyers say, since the evidence is identical in both cases.

Prosecutors have long contended that both men are guilty of murder and they point to Johnson's numerous failed appeals as evidence of that.

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