Terance Calhoun Files Federal Lawsuit Against Detroit Police Officers for Over 15-Year Wrongful Imprisonment

Police coerced a false confession and fabricated evidence, and then buried DNA evidence of innocence, leaving Calhoun wrongfully imprisoned for over 15 years.   

(DETROIT, MI)  The national civil rights law firm Neufeld Scheck Brustin Hoffmann & Freudenberger, LLP (NSBHF) and Detroit based law firm Goodman Hurwitz & James, P.C. (GHJ) filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of Terance Calhoun for his over 15-year wrongful imprisonment. Calhoun, at only 19 years old and with obvious cognitive deficits, was coerced by Detroit police to falsely confess to crimes that he did not commit, and then police buried exculpatory forensic evidence, knowingly leaving an innocent man wrongfully imprisoned.

“This is a case that truly shocks the conscience,” said Emma Freudenberger, a partner with NSBHF. “Police had definitive scientific evidence proving Terance Calhoun’s innocence, and deliberately hid it, choosing to let him suffer in prison rather than own up to their own misconduct. It’s time not only to compensate Terance for the over 15 years he lost, but it’s also time for the Detroit Police Department to reckon with the egregious misconduct that’s destroyed so many lives.”

Notably, Freudenberger added, James Tolbert – one of the officers behind Calhoun’s wrongful conviction – was a key player in another wrongful conviction case with a similar fact pattern: that of Devontae Sanford, who was awarded $7.5 million in 2022 in a case brought by the same law firms bringing today’s legal action.

“It’s frustrating to see young Black men treated with such callousness by Detroit police again and again. Here, they exploited Terance’s disability to ‘close’ two sexual assault cases, leaving the real perpetrators free to harm more victims, and depriving Terance of precious years of his life,” said Kathryn Bruner James, a partner with GHJ, and co-counsel in today’s lawsuit.

Terance Calhoun was arrested for the sexual assault of a 13-year-old minor, identified as “BH,” on November 3, 2006. The police arrested the 19-year-old Calhoun based solely on the young victim’s physical description of her assailant, who she then described as a tall, 25- to 26-year-old Black male – even though at that time Calhoun stood at only 5’5” tall, weighed 125 pounds and spoke with a noticeable intellectual impairment. Calhoun had never been charged with a crime before his arrest.

At the police station, Detroit police officers coerced and fabricated a false confession from the intellectually disabled and vulnerable Calhoun. The Detroit police officers also used Calhoun as an opportunity to close another open sexual assault case: the September 26, 2006, attempted assault of a 15-year-old minor identified as “MV.” MV described her assailant as a 6’1” Black male, 20-25 years old, with “braids to the back” and a unique “puzzle piece” tattoo on his arm – characteristics that didn’t match Calhoun. Despite these disparate descriptions, police framed Calhoun for both.

As the lawsuit alleges, Calhoun’s case was full of red flags that should have led to his exoneration, rather than his wrongful conviction: MV had described her assailant as a man with braids and a distinctive puzzle tattoo – Calhoun had neither. Then police interrogated Calhoun – who attended a special needs high school and was on disability due to his limited cognitive abilities – without any attorneys, guardians nor any witnesses present, and without recording the interrogation. Moreover, biological evidence collected at the crime scene of BH’s assault did not match Calhoun’s DNA.

As a result of the Detroit police officers’ misconduct, and despite being actually innocent, Calhoun entered a plea of “no contest” and in March 2007, was sentenced to 15 to 30 years in prison. Three months later, police officers received the DNA lab analysis from BH’s assault excluding Calhoun as a match to the DNA profile of her assailant. Yet the officers, aware that such evidence would expose their misconduct, did not turn over the report to the prosecution nor to Calhoun’s attorneys.

As the complaint states: “No reasonable officer could have failed to understand they were obligated to share this exculpatory DNA evidence with the prosecution and the defense. Yet, instead of sharing the DNA evidence, officers allowed Calhoun—an innocent, cognitively disabled young man—to stay locked up, where he remained for another almost 15 years wrongfully incarcerated.”

It was not until 2019, under a Wayne County initiative to review testing on a backlog of sexual assault kits, that the DNA evidence of Calhoun’s innocence in BH’s assault reached prosecutors who notified the State Appellate Defender Office of the exclusionary results. However, no further action was taken on Calhoun’s wrongful conviction until early 2022, when the Michigan State Police identified the DNA from BH’s assault as belonging to serial rapist Lionel Jarvon Wells—who had committed at least five other rapes of teens in the Detroit area from 2007 to 2014. At that point, with Calhoun still sitting in prison, Wayne County’s Conviction Integrity Unit conducted a national law enforcement database search and identified MV’s assailant (the man with the unique puzzle piece tattoo) as Ralph Douglass Tucker who, in 2019, was convicted for multiple sex crimes committed in the county from August 1999 to April 2003 and is currently serving prison time in Michigan. On April 27, 2022, Calhoun was finally exonerated and released from prison.

Terance Calhoun was not the only victim of injustice in this case, Freudenberger noted: “The police officers who manufactured Calhoun’s wrongful conviction are responsible for two serial rapists remaining at large to victimize more women over a combined total of at least 11 years.”

Today’s lawsuit seeks unspecified compensatory and punitive damages for the violation of Mr. Calhoun’s constitutional rights. The complaint names as defendants City of Detroit Police Sergeant Robert Kane, Police Officers Joseph Ortiz and Michele Jaskulka, Commander James Tolbert, Lieutenant Bilal Muhammad, and three unnamed officers identified as “Jesse Doe” I, II and III.

Mr. Calhoun is represented by partners Emma Freudenberger and Amelia Green, of Neufeld Scheck Brustin Hoffmann & Freudenberger, LLP, along with partners Julie Hurwitz and Kathryn Bruner James of Goodman Hurwitz & James, P.C.. The lawsuit, captioned Calhoun v. City of Detroit Police Department et al., Case No. 2:24-cv-10184, was filed in brought in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan. The complaint is available here.

Read coverage by Michigan Public Radio here.

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