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Walter Forbes of Michigan Exonerated After 37 Years in Prison

Sometime in the beginning of 1982, Forbes, a full-time student at Michigan’s Jackson Community College, was at a bar where he was instrumental in breaking up a bar fight. The next day, one of the men involved in the fight, Dennis Hall, tracked Forbes down and shot him for his actions.

In July of that year, Hall died in his Jackson, Michigan, apartment, the victim of what appeared to be arson. Police looked to Forbes as a suspect. They arrested him, and he was convicted in May 1983 and sentenced to life in prison.

State’s witness Annice Kennebrew (then Annice Gibson) testified that she saw Forbes and two others set fire to the two-story, century-old house, which was converted into apartments. Her testimony was so full of discrepancies that charges were dismissed against one defendant after passing a polygraph, and another was acquitted at trial. Forbes was the only one convicted. His attorney, Imran Syed, said it was probably due to the tension between Forbes and Kennebrew. “Merely being arrested and charged suggests to the jury that something happened even though they should be scrutinizing the evidence and presuming innocence,” stated Syed, lawyer at the Michigan Innocence Clinic. “No jury wants to believe that a prosecutor went through the trouble of bringing someone to trial if they’re truly innocent.”

In 2017, Kennebrew recanted her testimony, prompting an evidentiary hearing. Evidence existed that suggested the fire was started as part of an insurance fraud scheme initiated by the building owner. Kennebrew testified that she was coerced into her previous testimony. She said she “had falsely implicated Mr. Forbes because she had been intimidated into doing so by two local men who knew her from around the neighborhood and who had threatened to harm her and her family if she did not implicate Mr. Forbes,” the court documents read.

Forbes was acquitted in a new trial and released on November 20, 2020, after nearly four decades in prison. “It felt like all the possibilities that I was working on all those years were coming to fruition,” he stated. “I didn’t think it would take that long, but patience paid off.”

Forbes said he did not hold any animosity toward Kennebrew for her actions. In an Innocence Project Facebook post, he said, “I don’t hold contempt for the people who lied to convict me ... The reason is selfish: I wasn’t going to allow them to destroy me. He told the Detroit Free Press, “Even though it took forever, I’m still grateful she did the right thing, that she finally did tell the truth.” 

 

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