NewsRegionWayne County

Man wrongfully convicted of murder released from prison as another pursues state compensation

Posted at 8:20 PM, Feb 04, 2022
and last updated 2022-02-04 23:49:45-05

DETROIT (WXYZ) — When a Wayne County judge asked Dennis Atkins if he had any objection to her vacating his convictions on murder, assault, and weapons, and dismissing the case itself, he replied, "Not at all."

In January 2006, Atkins was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole for the 2005 murder of 17-year-old Billie Rutledge.

Rutledge was on a stretcher and being treated by two EMS workers for gunshot wounds when a man, armed with a gun, walked up to him shot him again.

Atkins maintained his innocence, and several years ago, he reached out to the Wayne County Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU) in hopes that they would re-investigate the case and push for his release.

On Friday, Valerie Newman, Director of Wayne County's CIU, asked the judge to vacate the convictions and case against Atkins, now 38.

"Mr. Atkins was not involved, in any way, shape, or form, in the murder of Billie Rutledge," Newman said in court.

And at 1:30 Friday afternoon, Atkins walked out of a prison in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Prison officials said he would be bound for Detroit to reunite with loved ones.

Since January 2018, when Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy began the CIU, 28 out of the 31 exonerations and wrongful convictions involve cases handled by Detroit Police.

In general, the wrongful convictions and exonerations stem from mistaken identity, false confessions, and police misconduct, including the misuse of informants.

When 7 Action News asked the United States Department of Justice if they were conducting any investigation into police misconduct, a spokesperson said, per policy, they cannot confirm or deny the existence of an investigation.

Larry Smith, released a year ago today, is one of many men wrongfully convicted and exonerated who accuse Detroit Police of giving inmates information about crimes so that they could provide false testimony against them.

Smith spent over 26 years in prison before he was released. He's now seeking compensation for the years he spent behind bars.

"They tell me that they're returning me to make me whole, but they not giving me the tools needed in order to make me whole," said Smith.

Smith is seeking money through the Wrongful Imprisonment Compensation Act (WICA).

The WICA fund allows for a person to receive $50,000 for every year they spent behind bars for crimes they did not commit.

As December 31, 2021, there was $11,207,238.67, in the wrongful imprisonment fund.

According to Attorney General Dana Nessel's office: Under WICA, a plaintiff is entitled to compensation if he/she can show: 1) new evidence demonstrates that the plaintiff did not perpetrate the crime and was not an accomplice or accessory; 2) the new evidence resulted in the reversal or vacation of the charges; and 3) the new evidence resulted in either the dismissal of all charges or a finding of not guilty on all charges on retrial.

"This compensation for Mr. Smith is very important, not simply because of the monetary amount, but because it allows him the resources that he so desperately needs to get the mental health care that he needs," said Jarrett Adams, Smith's attorney.

While the conviction integrity unit determined Smith had been wrongfully convicted, he was not given the distinction of being exonerated.

In most exoneration cases, the CIU has found significant evidence to support the identity of another person as the perpetrator. By that time, a perpetrator is often deceased or already serving a lengthy for other serious crimes.

"Mr. Smith has no other way. He can't go out and go find the actual perpetrator after a quarter-century," Adams said. "He's done all that he can. It's time for Mr. Smith to get the resources that he needs so he and his family can heal and he can move on."

Smith is now suing the City of Detroit and the Wayne County Prosecutor's Office for over $1.3 million, the amount he and his attorney believe he is due in compensation.

A lawsuit has also been filed in federal court against the members of the police department and prosecutor's office who handled Smith's case for "unlawful detention.. fabricated evidence," and "malicious prosecution."

Adams acknowledges the good work done by the conviction integrity unit in reversing convictions where appropriate, but he said there is much more to be done.

"We haven't gone in with our work gloves and boots on and really done what is needed because, right now, we're literally changing out the faucet where we know we need to tear up the floor to fix the pipes."