Walter Forbes’s dream while a student at Michigan’s Jackson Community College in 1982 was to own a real estate development firm but the moment he decided to break up a fight in a bar, his life changed forever. A day after the bar fight, one of the men involved, Dennis Hall, shot Forbes four times. And while Hall was on bail for the shooting, he died in his apartment in Jackson, Michigan, in a fire that seemed to have been intentionally set on July 12, 1982.
This was not long after he had shot Forbes, who was healing. But because Forbes and Hall had previously crossed swords, Forbes was seen as a suspect in the arson and was arrested at his home. He was convicted of arson and murder in May 1983 and was sentenced to life in prison.
But last month, November 20, after almost 40 years of his conviction, Forbes became a free man after the prosecution star witness, a woman named Annice Kennebrew, admitted fabricating her story. Also, evidence emerged that the fire may have been part of an insurance fraud scheme planned by the apartment building owner. This led to a retrial, documents filed in Jackson County Circuit Court stated.
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Kennebrew’s testimony had been used as evidence to implicate Forbes. She had claimed after the 1982 fire in Jackson that she saw three men, including Forbes, pour gasoline on the exterior of the apartment house in Jackson and set it ablaze. One of the three men later had charges against him dismissed after he passed a polygraph test and the other was acquitted. Forbes was the only one convicted.
Forbes, while in prison, contacted the Michigan Innocence Clinic run by lawyers and students at the University of Michigan. In 2010, the clinic took up his case. Imran Syed of the Michigan Innocence Clinic and currently Forbes’ lawyer said he and his team, after realizing that a single witness had been used to convict a man for murder, tried to contact Kennebrew. In 2017 when they did, she “came clean,” saying that she never saw Forbes at the scene of the fire.
In February 2010 when a judge granted an evidentiary hearing, Kennebrew testified “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,” according to court documents.
Meanwhile, Syed and his team knew there had been an alternate suspect from the beginning in this case. David Jones, the owner of the apartment building in Jackson that was burnt, was in 1990 convicted in a separate arson conspiracy scheme in Livingston County, Michigan. In that Livingston County fire, a man died as well, according to court documents. Two people who admitted to conspiring with Jones to burn the building down in 1990 later told police they were aware of Jones’ involvement in the 1982 fire in Jackson.
Jones had bought the property in Jackson more than eight years before the fire but insured it only two months before the fire. At the end of the day, he received more than $50,000 in insurance money for the Jackson fire, and that was far above market value for the building, USA Today reported. Jones died some years before the Michigan Innocence Clinic started looking into Forbes’ case. This fall, a judge threw out Forbes’ conviction, and the county prosecutor filed a motion to dismiss the case.
“I don’t hold contempt for the people who lied to convict me,” Forbes was quoted by USA Today. “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,” said Forbes, who is now 63 and has hopes of continuing the work he started in prison with prison reform groups.