Kenneth Nixon, who lost nearly half his life wrongfully imprisoned, sues Detroit and Detroit Police for alleged police frame-up

Detroit Police allegedly framed then 19-year-old Kenneth Nixon, causing his wrongful imprisonment for the next 16 years.

“I just would like you to know that you’re about to sentence
an innocent man to prison.”

Kenneth Nixon at his 2005 sentencing hearing

DETROIT – Wrongfully convicted and imprisoned Detroit native Kenneth Nixon filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against Individual Defendants and the City of Detroit today for manufacturing false evidence and suppressing exculpatory evidence that set him up for two life sentences in maximum security prison without parole at age 19.

Mr. Nixon was finally exonerated and released from prison on February 18, 2021 after investigations by the Cooley Law School Innocence Project and the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office Conviction Integrity Unit established his innocence.

Mr. Nixon and his attorneys will hold a 1 p.m. press conference today at the offices of Goodman, Hurwitz & James, 1394 E. Jefferson Avenue, Detroit.

Today’s lawsuit alleges that officers relied on a coached statement of a 13-year-old alleged witness to a 2005 arson-murder, who ended up giving three radically contradictory accounts of what he supposedly saw. “So fraught were these inconsistent statements that Defendant [Kurtiss] Staples admitted in a memo to Defendant [James] Tolbert that it was ‘obvious’ that the youth had been ‘coached by family members.'” The memo was not shared with prosecutors and Nixon’s defense team.

With no physical evidence linking Mr. Nixon to the crime and multiple alibi witnesses to his real whereabouts, police then turned to a serial jail “informant” who claimed Nixon confessed to him while in lockup. The “informant” was promised a reduced sentence and early release in exchange for his alleged evidence.

So concerned about the lack of evidence in what he dubbed “an extremely high profile case,” Wayne County prosecutor Patrick Muscat wrote a memo to Officer Tolbert that the case had “serious problems” and that Tolbert had to “find a way to corroborate [the youth’s] testimony” because there was a “desperate need” for more evidence. The memo was not shared with Mr. Nixon’s defense team.

The suit notes that the Detroit Police Department has a long-standing practice of coercing and coaching jailhouse informants or snitches to fabricate evidence, and of unlawfully detaining witnesses in homicide cases who are not suspected of any crime, in order to pressure them into testifying against otherwise innocent suspects:

“In the 1990s through the 2000s, homicide detectives regularly offered perks (e.g., food and drink, drugs, conjugal visits, television privileges, and leniency) to detainees in exchange for testimony against other detainees; officers provided prewritten witness statements for detainees to memorize and/or they provided confidential information from the case files in order to fabricate credibility…. This widespread practice within the DPD was well known, approved, and encouraged by command officers and policymakers for Defendant City prior to Plaintiff’s arrest….“

“DPD also has a longstanding pattern and practice of withholding exculpatory evidence from prosecutors and criminal defendants, which has directly caused dozens, if not hundreds, of wrongful convictions, including the wrongful conviction of Mr. Nixon. This practice was well known, approved, encouraged, and ratified by command officers and official policy makers for Defendant city prior to Plaintiff’s arrest and continues to date.”[emphasis added]

One of the lead individual defendants in today’s suit, James Tolbert, was caught lying in another high-profile murder investigation, manufacturing evidence against a 14-year-old child, resulting in the child’s wrongful conviction for a quadruple homicide and wrongful imprisonment for nearly nine years. For his serial lying, Tolbert is on the Wayne County Prosecutor’s do-not-call-to-testify list.

To the attorneys’ knowledge, none of the officers responsible for this misconduct were disciplined by the Detroit Police Department for it. Instead, one of the lead individual defendant officers, James Tolbert, was repeatedly promoted after Nixon’s arrest and conviction, eventually retiring at the rank of Commander, and currently receives a pension at taxpayers’ expense.

At the time of his arrest at age 19, Kenneth Nixon intended to open a towing truck business. He was the father of two young children, ages 1 and 3. During his wrongful incarceration, he missed virtually the entirety of his children’s young lives; his children were 16 and 18 when he was finally released. His grandparents also passed away while he was wrongfully imprisoned and he was unable even to attend their funerals.

Today Mr. Nixon is President of the Organization of Exonerees, a non-profit organization that advocates on behalf of innocent persons who have been, or are in the process of being, wrongfully convicted. He is also Director of Outreach and Community Partnership for Safe and Just Michigan, another non-profit organization. Mr. Nixon is currently pursuing a degree in political science at Wayne State University.

Mr. Nixon is represented by attorneys Julie Hurwitz and Kathryn James of the Detroit-based civil rights law firm Goodman, Hurwitz & James. Goodman, Hurwitz & James concentrates on representing victims of police misconduct, along with other areas of practice that emphasize social justice such as wrongful convictions, prison abuse, and other governmental misconduct. The firm has obtained large verdicts and settlements for its clients, but – most importantly – has achieved a sense of justice for them and influenced changes in the law and in governmental practices.

Mr. Nixon is also represented by Gayle Horn and Isabella “Bella” Aguilar of the national civil rights law firm Loevy & Loevy Attorneys at Law. Loevy & Loevy is one of the nation’s largest civil rights law firms, and over the past decade has won more multi-million dollar jury verdicts than any other civil rights law firm in the country.

A copy of today’s lawsuit, Kenneth Nixon v. City of Detroit, Detective Moises Jimenez, Commander James Tolbert, Detective Kurtiss Staples, Sergeant Eddie Croxton, Officer Alma Hughes-Grubbs, and other as-of yet-unknown employees of the City of Detroit, Case No. 2:23-cv-11547-JEL-EAS, can be found here.

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