Eight years ago, William Craig Garrett thought he had a rare second chance in the Michigan courts.
Then-Wayne County Circuit Judge Sean Cox had ordered a new trial for the Hazel Park native convicted in the 1995 armed robbery of an elderly woman in her Plymouth Township home. Just four years into a 15- to 30-year sentence, Garrett didn't expect to be eligible for parole for another 11 years.
But Cox released Garrett on bond, and he walked out of a Detroit courtroom free of shackles and his blue prison uniform.
"The court is of the opinion that this case presents substantial questions of law and fact and invites further appellate review of the significant issues," Cox wrote in one of his opinions in the case.
Garrett moved to Kentucky, found work in construction, bought a house and got married. He knew he could remain free on bond while his appeals progressed. When he heard nothing from Michigan attorneys or authorities for years, he claims, he figured his case had been dropped.
But by 2003, the Court of Appeals had overturned the order for a new trial and denied his other pending appeals. Also, the Michigan Supreme Court refused to hear his case. By the terms of his bond, Garrett should have turned himself in then. He says neither his attorney nor the courts notified him and he was unaware of warrants for his arrest until police in Kentucky knocked on family members' doors just several months ago.
The Wayne County Prosecutor's Office says a task force is also looking for him.
Garrett, now 36, refuses to turn himself in. He says he lives on the streets, having left his job and the home he shared with his wife. He wonders how long he'll be able to stay on the run and if he'll ever get that new trial he once thought he'd have. "I don't even sleep for two days at a time, just worried," he told Metro Times last week. "If I did it, I'm man enough to go do the time, but it's different when you've been set up and railroaded."
The Michigan Supreme Court and Court of Appeals do not track the number of motions for new trial nor the numbers granted or refused, says Marcia McBrien, court spokeswoman. But prosecutors and defense lawyers say it's rare defendants get another chance at a jury trial or have their verdicts set aside.
Tim Baughman, the assistant Wayne County prosecutor who opposed Garrett's new trial, says disagreements about facts are part of the trial system. "In almost any trial, you're going to have witnesses on one side and witnesses on the other side, and they're going to contradict each other. The jury sorts it out," he says.
But defense advocates say the system is too weighted against defendants, especially when the jury makes a mistake, doesn't hear all the evidence, or hears incorrect information.
"We have a Michigan Court of Appeals that has been for a very long time very pro-prosecution," says David Moran, an associate dean at Wayne State University Law School who worked in the State Appellate Defenders Office for eight years. "As a result, what that means is the relief rate, the rate at which convictions or sentences are overturned, has gone way down in the last 20 years. There are a lot of defendants who have meritorious appeals who lose nonetheless."
Garrett and his attorneys consider his one of those cases. Garrett was 24 when he was released on parole in December 1994. He had served two years for felonious assault and malicious destruction of property over $100. Putting a documented history of juvenile crime and alcohol abuse behind him, he claims, he moved in with his parents in Fenton and found a job with a furnace service company in early 1995.
One of his first solo calls after supervised training was on March 10 at the home of Eleanore Neault, then 86, on Ann Arbor Trail Road in Plymouth Township. He says it was the only time he was at her home until last week when he stopped on the roadway in front of the house with a film crew that was shooting footage of him because of possible interest from a television network in his story.
Four days after the 1995 furnace cleaning, Neault, who is now dead, was attacked and robbed.
Neault told officers a man had come to her house in the afternoon, saying he was there to check her water pressure. He was in her basement when a second man whom she identified as Garrett from his earlier service call appeared in her driveway. She let the man in. He wanted money. When she refused, he beat her with a knife handle, she said. After the attack, in which she suffered head injuries, she crawled through her yard to the home of a neighbor, who called police.
Neault said at trial she didn't know what happened to the water man.
Police tracked Garrett down and arrested him later that evening.
Garrett says police should have looked for the other man Neault said was at her home that day. "They didn't check that out," he says. "They had me, a guy who had a record."
During the investigation, preliminary examination and trial, Neault sometimes gave conflicting testimony about the time of her attack, the weapon used, the color of the truck in her driveway the suspect could have driven and other details. During a subsequent civil case she filed against Garrett and his employer after his conviction, it was disclosed that she had a brain tumor before the assault and that she suffered from minor strokes several months after it. Garrett's attorney did not know that at trial.
"... it was practically impossible for her to testify because of her mental confusion," Don Ferris, who handled Garrett's appeals, wrote in one of his briefs. Ferris did not return telephone calls or e-mail messages from Metro Times.
Fingerprints in Neault's house did not match Garrett's, and tire prints didn't match his truck. When he was arrested less than five hours after the attack, he didn't have the weapon the victim described nor the $100 to $150 Neault said her attacker stole from a cracker canister.
Two alibi witnesses and Garrett passed polygraph tests after his trial. Records show he had an hour-long service call at 2:15 p.m. in Detroit and another in Clawson at about 6 p.m. bracketing the time the attack occurred. He had five witnesses who testified he was in Hazel Park in between those calls. "I'd just like to say I'm not guilty, and you're sending an innocent man to prison," Garrett said at his sentencing in November 1995.
"The jury heard the testimony of simply witnesses that weren't credible with regard to the alibi testimony, and heard testimony from the actual victim herself and made their decision," Robert Stevens, assistant Wayne County prosecutor, said at Garrett's sentencing.
After Garrett's conviction, his lawyers filed a routine appeal. It was denied.
"What could I do? Just jump up and down in my cell and scream, 'I'm innocent'? They'd have just kept on walking. There's nothing you can do but try to get people to help you from outside," Garrett says.
But then Cox granted him a new trial based on an alibi witness who was not called at trial and also placed Garrett in Hazel Park at the time of the attack. "The exercise of this discretion by the court is ... to be done to protect the accused against mistakes and prejudice," wrote Cox, now a federal judge in Detroit. "The alibi testimony ... would, in the opinion of this court, render a different result upon retrial."
Cox did not return telephone calls to Metro Times. It's not clear what other legal avenues remain for Garrett.
Meanwhile, he says he doesn't know what will happen to him. His parents, who retired from Fenton to Kentucky several years ago, have spent thousands of dollars hiring attorneys and private investigators to help his case. His mother, who was with him in the Detroit area last week, says she wouldn't help authorities locate him, even if she did know where he was.
"I'm not going to turn him in and he's not going to turn himself in because he's innocent," she says. "If he had done the crime, it would be different."
Garrett says he would like to return to live in Michigan. "I'd like to be free and live my life and live where I want to," he says. "I'm just trying to get evidence together to prove my innocence."Sandra Svoboda is a Metro Times staff writer. Contact her at 313-202-8015 or firstname.lastname@example.org