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Oakland Co. prosecutor uncovers 'ethical violations' in deadly arson case conviction

Posted at 5:19 PM, May 14, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-14 18:21:08-04

(WXYZ) —

The death of five children in April of 2000 dramatically changed the course of Juwan Deering's life. All this time, he’s proclaimed his innocence and now stunning new evidence supports that claim.

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"That's my only lifeline, my older brother. It hurts right now,” said Antawan Deering.

Antawan says his brother Juwan has been his best friend his entire life.

But for nearly 15 years, the two have been separated after a jury in 2006 found Juwan guilty of arson and murder related to a deadly fire at a Royal Oak Township home in April of 2000.

“He’s a good person. Never ever would we be like that in our family," said Antawan.

Prosecutor Karen McDonald is now speaking out after she says her office found ethical violations in the case that put Juwan behind bars.

"That troubles me as a lawyer, troubles me as a prosecutor," she said.

McDonald said 50-year-old Deering is serving life in prison. In his case, the jury didn’t have all the facts, including what jailhouse informants received in exchange for their testimony.

“You have to disclose to the jury what if anything they received as a result of that testimony. They consistently testified both at the preliminary exam and trial that they received nothing. Promised nothing. Wouldn’t receive anything. Looking at our files we concluded that wasn’t true,” she said.

Imran Syed has fought for Juwan for more than a decade on behalf of the Michigan Innocence Clinic.

His work has also led to countless exonerations in Michigan.

Across the U.S., the National Registry of Exonerations says nearly 25,000 years in prison have been served by those wrongfully convicted.

There have now been more than 2,700 exonerations from 1989-2000. In 2020, there were 129 exonerations, 84 of which were the result of conviction integrity units or innocence organizations.

"Prosecutor McDonald and her team have done an unbelievable amount of work in a very short time,” said Syed.

A report from the National Registry of Exonerations shows Michigan is also second in the U.S. in its number of exonerations.

In this case, Syed said the assistant prosecutor at the time, Greg Townsend, deliberately withheld key evidence.

“You’ve got a treasure trove of new evidence informants in this case were career informants. They have a real incentive to lie, fabricate and exaggerate,” said Syed.

McDonald also noted, “the expert at the time testified that they were certain that the fire was started by an accelerant and that it was intentionally set, that science has been debunked in the last twenty-some years."

"We have to do a better job looking at cases and deciding what is the fair and just result and not just somebody being convicted," she said.

We’ve learned former Asst. Oakland County Prosecutor Townsend now works for the Michigan Attorney General, and worked on the high profile Wolverine Watchmen case until recently.

A statement from their office reads in part:

“Townsend was reassigned from his docket while the Department of Attorney General performs a comprehensive audit of his work."

The Oakland County Sheriff's Office also released the following statement:

"We understand there were questions raised about the Deering prosecution. In an abundance of caution, we have opened an investigation to re-examine our role in this case.

One thing that should be immediately cleared up however, is the mistaken assertion that the investigation relied on “junk science.” The conviction was affirmed on appeal, and the court rejected the defense argument that “junk science” was key to the prosecution. There was an exhaustive evidentiary hearing conducted, which lasted almost a year. The circuit court judge found the evidence was admissible.

The circuit court ruling was appealed to the Court of Appeals, which affirmed the ruling of the trial court as to the admissibility of the arson science. The defendant appealed to the Michigan Supreme Court, which allowed the appellate court ruling to stand without further argument.

In any event, an exhaustive review of our case internally is underway. We always will work diligently to ensure convictions as well as the process are proper."

It’s unknown just how soon Deering could be granted a new trial, or early release. In the meantime, McDonald is implementing more ethics training and bringing in a special counsel to investigate.

"It’s unimaginable to know what it would be like to ... be wrongfully charged and convicted,” said Syed.

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