Walter Forbes, a 63-year-old Black man in Michigan, is now free to spend the holidays with his family for the first time in over 37 years.
Forbes was recently released from his decadeslong incarceration after the witness who helped imprison him recanted her original testimony this year and acknowledged it was a lie, due to renewed probing of the case by the Michigan Innocence Clinic. Forbes was convicted of arson and murder in the death of Dennis Hall and sentenced to life in prison in 1987, reports the Detroit Free Press.
Hall died in an apartment fire in 1982, days after he shot Forbes in retaliation for the latter breaking up a bar fight he was involved in.
Forbes was arrested for Hall’s death on the testimony of a woman named Annice Kennebrew, who said she saw him and two other men burn down the apartment building in which the victim lived. There were multiple discrepancies in Kennebrew’s testimony to prosecutors at the time, which differed from the forensic evidence investigators found at the scene of the crime, according to a CNN report.
Prosecutors also received a tip days after the fire that said the apartment was burned down as part of an insurance fraud scheme by the building’s owner David Jones. That tip was corroborated by another witness who said he knew someone who was paid by Jones to set the fire. Of course, none of this was followed up by prosecutors who went forward with pinning the murder on Forbes alone after charges against the other two men accused by Kennebrew were dismissed.
After Forbes reached out to the Michigan Innocence Project with his case, his attorney Imran Syed made contact with Kennebrew and she admitted in 2017 that she had fabricated the entire story.
“She came clean,” Syed said. “She said that at the time of the fire she was 19, and there were two men in the community that took advantage of that.”
Weeks after the fire, two local men approached her and pressured her to implicate Forbes and two other men in the arson.
“They threatened to kill my children, parents, siblings, and me if I did not report to the police and testify at trial that I saw Walter and the other two men set the fire,” Kennebrew said in a sworn 2017 affidavit.
“Everything I told police, and everything I testified to at trial relating to my witnessing the setting of the fire, was a fabrication,” the affidavit continued. “As far as I know, Walter had nothing to do with this crime.”
Court documents obtained by CNN show that the Jackson County Prosecutor’s Office in Michigan fought the efforts to reopen Forbes’ case in court, saying the inconsistencies in Kennebrew’s initial testimony were insignificant. Still, a judge heard the case earlier this year and ended up throwing out the conviction, which led to Forbes being freed in November.
“I didn’t think it would take that long, but patience paid off,” he told the Detroit Free Press, adding that he doesn’t hold animosity for the woman who lied to convict him.
“If I didn’t forgive, it wouldn’t be detrimental to them, it would be detrimental to me,” Forbes said, though he expressed distrust in the system that prosecuted and imprisoned him on the testimony of one woman.
“Up until I was convicted, I thought the system would work, that it would correct itself. In hindsight, I was naive,” Forbes said. “Calling it the justice system gives a false impression.”
Meanwhile, the landlord who owned the building that was set on fire earned a payout of $50,000 in insurance money at the time and then went on to be convicted in a case of arson insurance fraud in 1990. He is now deceased.