A Black Michigan man who spent nearly four decades in prison following his 1983 conviction for arson and murder was exonerated last month after a key witness admitted she fabricated her testimony.
In 1982, when Walter Forbes was a full-time student at Michigan’s Jackson Community College, he broke up a fight at a bar. The next day, one of the men involved in the bar fight shot Forbes.
When the shooter, Dennis Hall, died later that year in an apartment fire that appeared to have been intentionally set, Forbes became the prime suspect in the eyes of police because the two men had been involved in a previous altercation.
Forbes was arrested in his home and convicted of arson and murder in May 1983. He was sentenced to life in prison.
“Up until I was convicted, I thought the system would work, that it would correct itself. In hindsight, I was naïve,” Forbes told the Detroit Free Press.
At the age of 63, Forbes was exonerated on Nov. 20, three years after key witness Annice Kennebrew admitted in 2017 that she lied in her testimony. In addition, evidence indicating the fire may have been linked to an insurance fraud scheme involving the apartment owner also surfaced. These developments prompted a retrial.
Kennebrew testified that she saw Forbes and two other men burn down the apartment in 1982. Due to the discrepancies in Kennebrew’s testimony, charges against one of the men were dropped after he passed a polygraph test, and the other was acquitted.
Forbes was the only one of the three men to be convicted.
His attorney, Imran Syed of the Michigan Innocence Clinic, believes he was convicted because of the prior altercation with Hall.
Kennebrew ultimately admitted she had never seen Forbes at the scene of the fire. She testified at an evidentiary hearing in February 2020 that “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.”
She can’t be charged with perjury because the statue of limitations for the crime is six years.
David Jones, the owner of the building hall died in, was convicted in another arson conspiracy scheme in 1990, in which a man also died. Two individuals who admitted they were a part of the 1990 fire shared that they knew Jones was also involved in the 1982 blaze, for which he received $50,000 in insurance money.
Jones died in 2010.
Forbes didn’t express contempt for the individuals that contributed to his wrongful conviction.
“I don’t hold contempt for the people who lied to convict me,” he said. “The reason is selfish: I wasn’t going to allow them to destroy me. If I didn’t forgive, it wouldn’t be detrimental to them, it would be detrimental to me.”
Under a 2016 Michigan law, wrongfully convicted people can receive $50,000 for every year they were behind bars. That means Forbes is eligible to receive nearly $2 million from the state.
A GoFundMe page for Forbes has raised nearly $10,000.