Justice much delayed

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Thomas Highers, who served 25 years in prison after being convicted of a 1987 murder, appears with Valerie Newman of the State Appellate Defender Office at a seminar presented by the Michigan Lawyers Chapter of the American Constitution Society March 21 on the campus of University of Detroit Mercy School of Law.

Photo by Steve Thorpe

After serving 25 years for murder, brothers Thomas and Raymond Highers were released from prison last summer

By Steve Thorpe
Legal News

Decades in prison could have broken two brothers’ spirits and burdened them with a sense of hopelessness that can deaden the soul. But Thomas and Raymond Highers, less than a year apart in age, never gave up trying to prove that they were innocent of murder. Their hope, and the hard work of family members and some dedicated attorneys, kept their case alive.

The Highers brothers were released from prison last summer after serving 25 years for murder.

Valerie Newman, assistant defender at the State Appellate Defender Office in Detroit, told the story of the Highers’ brothers convictions at the age of 21 and how Facebook helped find the witnesses who proved them innocent as the Michigan Lawyers Chapter of the American Constitution Society presented the discussion “Justice Much Delayed” on Thursday at University of Detroit Mercy School of Law.

The Highers brothers were sentenced to life in prison in 1988 by a judge who convicted them in a nonjury trial in the 1987 shotgun slaying of 65-year-old Robert Karey, a marijuana dealer on Detroit’s east known to his customers as “Old Man Bob.” Raymond was 20 and Thomas 21 when they were imprisoned and they have both spent 25 years — more than half their lives — in prison.
“(After exhausting their appeals) they started investigating,” Newman said. “The family is not wealthy, so there weren’t a lot of resources, but whenever money was available it was put into private investigators. They tried to solve the crime. The brothers figured that the only way they would get out was to prove their innocence by solving the crime. That’s a very hard thing to do. But they were dogged, especially Tommy.”

In 2009 a woman posted on the Northeast Detroit Alumni page on Facebook an item about the Highers brothers’ case. An ensuing chat on the site uncovered new evidence, including people who were at the dope house that night, but never told police what they saw.

“What helped them was completely serendipitous,” said Newman. “It was a Facebook posting. A guy who went to law school here in the ‘90s roomed with a guy from Grosse Pointe named John Hielscher who was a regular customer of ‘Old Man Bob.’ He told Kevin (Zieleniewski) a story one day about a time he and friends went to Old Man Bob’s and were approached by armed men who pointed guns at their heads and said ‘Get the **** out of here!’ They took off running and heard shots fired. So there was an eyewitness to the crime that no one ever knew about.”

Zieleniewski, by then a graduate of Wayne State Law School and an attorney, now had the key piece of evidence, but wasn’t sure what it meant.

“Kevin knew about it, but he had no context,” Newman said. “

Once Zieleniewski put all the pieces together, he wrote a letter to Tommy Highers in prison.

“Kevin writes to Tommy and says, ‘I have information that can prove your innocence,’” said Newman.

But, in another strange twist of fate, the letter almost didn’t get to its destination.

“Kevin wrote the letter and put it in his mailbox (to be picked up),” said Newman. “His wife comes home later that day and she had found the letter half way down the block. For whatever reason, it had dropped out of the mailbox, and ended up down the street. Talk about things having to line up just right to make something happen …”

“That was the break in the case, 25 years after the conviction,” Newman said. “That started the ball rolling.”

“Hielscher, a teenager at the time of the killing, eventually said in an affidavit that he went to the house to buy marijuana and had a gun put to his head by a group of young African-American men,” said Newman. “The Highers brothers are white. Hielscher also said that, as they were running away, they heard a shot. Because he was afraid of the killers and being associated with drugs, he said he tried to forget the events.”

After months of testimony and hearings, the brothers were released on bond in August 2012 by Wayne County Circuit Judge Lawrence Talon pending a retrial.

Although there may be some legal speed bumps in getting the Highers brothers officially exonerated of the crime, Newman is confident that the outcome will eventually be positive. The brothers remain charged with first degree murder, assault with intent to commit murder and felony firearm.

In a conversation after the seminar, she expressed her hope that the Wayne County Prosecutors Office will dismiss the case.

“Procedurally we’re in a place where either the prosecutor drops the case or we move forward with trial. Once someone comes up to speed on the case, in my opinion, it should be inevitable,” Newman said. “We have more than shown their actual innocence and it’s a prosecutor’s job to do justice. Based on the evidence, the case should not go forward to trial.”