Grand Rapids, MI – Sept. 28, 2015 – This morning attorneys for a 40-year-old Kalkaska, MI man filed suit in federal court here against the County of Kalkaska, Village of Kalkaska, and several law enforcement officers and the prosecutor involved in the deeply-flawed investigation that led to his conviction.
Exonerated by DNA in 2014, Kalkaska native Jamie Lee Peterson spent seventeen years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.
On October 5, 1996, Mrs. Geraldine Montgomery, a 68-year-old Sunday school teacher, was brutally raped and murdered in her Kalkaska home. Investigators questioned and cleared the actual rapist / murderer. Several months later, facing tremendous pressure to solve the crime, investigators targeted then 22-year-old Jamie Peterson, a mentally ill man with intellectual disabilities who was in jail on an unrelated charge.
Peterson knew nothing about the crime, but investigators fed him information and used lies, deception, threats, and false promises—that Peterson lacked the mental capacity to resist—to induce him to wrongly confess. Peterson’s initial answers to investigators’ questions were wildly inaccurate and even nonsensical, but at Peterson’s criminal trial, investigators illegally suppressed this and lied about their interrogations of the mentally disabled young man.
While the investigation was still ongoing, tests of DNA found at the crime scene showed conclusively that someone else—not Peterson—had assaulted Mrs. Montgomery. Instead of clearing Peterson and trying to find the actual perpetrator, officials invented a theory in which Peterson acted with an unknown accomplice. Aside from his wrongfully-obtained false confessions, no evidence tied Peterson to the crime.
The prosecution’s entire forensic case rested on a second sample of DNA that, due to the state of the science at the time, was too small to be tested, yet prosecutors alleged that it was Peterson’s anyway even though there was no actual proof that it was his.
Even after DNA science improved enough that the second sample could be tested, Kalkaska officials refused for years to have it analyzed. Finally, in 2013, attorneys from the Michigan Innocence Project and the Northwestern University Center on Wrongful Convictions persuaded Kalkaska’s new district attorney to have the material tested.
It did not match Jamie Peterson. In fact, it matched the first sample, which was later linked to a man named Jason Ryan, who Kalkaska police had been previously investigated and cleared of rape in 1996. Ryan is awaiting retrial on charges stemming from the attack on Mrs. Montgomery.
After seventeen years in prison, Jamie Peterson’s conviction was overturned on August 14, 2014 and the charges against him were quickly dropped.
Today’s lawsuit alleges that investigators coerced Jamie Peterson into confessing, fabricated evidence, withheld exculpatory evidence, and maliciously prosecuted him.
“Jamie Peterson served nearly two decades in prison for a murder he had absolutely nothing to do with. Nothing will give Jamie back those years, but this with this suit we hope to hold those responsible accountable for their appalling abuse of power,” said Peterson’s attorney, Gretchen E. Helfrich, of the Chicago-based firm of Loevy & Loevy Attorneys at Law.
“Investigators not only railroaded an innocent man, but their manipulation of the evidence allowed a dangerous predator to remain free to prey on others,” said Jon Loevy, another of Peterson’s attorneys.
Loevy & Loevy is the largest civil rights law firm in the Midwest, with offices in Chicago and Boulder, and has won more multi-million dollar jury verdicts than any other civil rights law firm in the entire country over the past decade.
Copies of the suit, Peterson v. County of Kalkaska, et al., No. 1:15-cv-00969, can be found here.