It was July 1994 when Lacino Hamilton's foster mother was shot and killed inside her home. The Detroit woman who had raised Lacino was named Willa Bias, but he called her "Mom." Lacino, who was 19 at the time he was found guilty of the murder, is now 41 and imprisoned at Thumb Correctional Facility in Lapeer, Michigan, serving a sentence that will not expire until he is at least 71. He has always insisted that he loved his foster mother and that he is not the murderer. He was convicted based on the testimony of a "jailhouse snitch" in exchange for a lighter sentence, and a coerced confession from a friend who later refused to testify against him in court, but they still used the written confession.
In a personal letter, Lacino demonstrated a deep sense of self-reflection. He told me that while he is innocent of the murder, he was not "innocent." He was a drug dealer participating in the gangster lifestyle. Investigators speculate that Willa was murdered for the $70,000 cash Lacino had been storing in the basement. Lacino hopes that upon his release, he could work with urban youth to teach them positive alternatives to crime. He has spent his two decades in prison reading and writing many thoughtful essays addressing the problem of the "school to prison pipeline" and the irrational US policies that marginalize the poor.
"How some of us live is not a mistake; neither is it the product of a broken system. We live like that because it is profitable to a lot of people businesses: pawn shops, pay-day loan services, slum lords, creditors, social services and others who traffic in misery," he wrote.
Lacino also wrote letters to thousands of journalists, lawyers and colleges hoping someone would listen to his story of wrongful incarceration. Finally he heard back from Claudia Whitman, the director of the National Death Row Assistance Network, which recommends cases to the Innocent Project. At last an attorney, Mary Chartier, agreed to take on the case pro bono. If all goes well, Lacino will receive a retrial next year and hopefully be released.
In 2013, an investigator looking into Lacino's case contacted Christopher Brooks, who decided to finally speak out about Lonnie Bell, the man he saw exiting Willa Bias' home shortly after the murder, now that Lonnie is dead as a result of gang warfare. Lonnie had admitted to Christopher over lines of cocaine that he had committed the murder "because she was supposed to be dead." Lonnie also told Christopher that if he said anything, he would kill him too. Spooked, Christopher moved to Monroe, Michigan, a town near the Ohio border, to avoid Lonnie.
The informant, Olivera Rico Cowen, who is responsible for Lacino's false conviction, died of AIDS after he got his sentence reduced from 15 years to one year in exchange for "cooperating" with homicide detectives. Even though Olivera was the key witness in six other murder convictions, his testimony was accepted in lieu of evidence, leading to Lacino's 80 year sentence.
"In many cases, even if all the witnesses have recanted, or if a person claims innocence, it's still difficult to [overturn a conviction]. The courts are more concerned with whether the trial has been procedurally proper," Attorney Mary Ownes told Truthout.
However, US police, and in particular the Detroit Police Department, are coming under increasing scrutiny from the Federal Department of Justice and the public. Detroit police are notorious for withholding evidence from trials, that would prove the suspect's innocents. Detectives routinely provide witnesses with prewritten statements to memorize. Corruption in the homicide department led to the closure of the DPD's crime lab in 2008, while the FBI discovered that Detroit's former mayor, Kwame Kilpatric, who is now imprisoned, was discovered having a romantic affair with the federal monitor on police reforms, who had been sent to look into a report that Detroit police committed the highest number of fatal shootings compared to all other police forces in the US.
"Thinking broadly about the ways incarceration is constructed and reconstructed, or alternatives to incarceration, is complicated by networks of social control. Which operate to legitimize who has the authority to speak about incarceration, what can be said about incarceration, and what is sanctioned as true about incarceration," writes Lacino in the introduction to a book he is writing.
"One important mechanism for challenging the system of incarceration, then, is incarcerated men and women, and the communities in which they come from, must begin to speak for themselves. Incarcerated people can articulate an analysis of incarceration from the particular vantage point of lived experience. Use this to analyze policies and practices that support incarceration. And generate alternatives to caging people for part or all of their lives.
"These subjugated analyses about the world of incarceration define that world and possibilities differently. Thus, listening to and learning from the analyses and experiences of incarcerated men and women can help the broader society get a clearer understanding of the ordeal of retribution style justice; and suggest more imaginative alternatives for repairing harms caused in our society," Lacino concludes.
Lacino's investigative attorney team continues to track down witnesses and collect affidavits and push for a retrial. Please keep him and other wrongfully incarcerated people in your prayers.
Lacino Hamilton #247310
Thumb Correctional Facility
3225 John Conley Dr.
Lapeer, MI 48446
This article is based on a report by Aaron Cantu entitled "Ring of Snitches: How Detroit Police Slapped False Murder Convictions on Young Black Men," published March 31, 2015 in Truthout.