Man suing Flat Rock for serving 5 years for murder he never committed
(WJBK) - A Downriver man who served five years in prison for a crime he didn't commit has filed a lawsuit against the city of Flat Rock and one of its retired police officers. He and his lawyer filed the suit this week, exactly one year after the date in which he was finally released from prison.
James Sheperd still bears scars from his time inside prison, including a stab wound to his neck. The first couple years he was behind bars, he says he lied to his daughter about where he was because he didn't know how to tell her he was serving a life sentence for a crime he did not commit.
"(I thought) hopefully I'll be home before she realizes I'm gone," he tells us. "Hopefully I'll be home before she's grown. You know, these are the thoughts that are going through my mind."
Now, Sheperd is suing the city of Flat Rock and one of its retired cops for the nearly five years he spent in prison for a murder he did not commit.
"I've never been to hell, but that's probably got to be the closest thing to it on earth," he says.
The nightmare began back in 2010 when Sheperd's friend Chris Henderson murdered Jessie Cabrera at the Walnut Creek apartment. Someone saw Henderson at the scene with an unknown accomplice, but told police they were sure it was not Sheperd. Even so - Flat Rock police brought him in and built a case against him.
"Once I got there I could already tell they had an agenda, they had something set that they wanted to do," Sheperd says. "Basically, they were trying to get a round peg in a square hole."
Not only did the lead investigator Det. Jeffrey Metz not have any hard evidence tying Sheperd to the crime, but Metz also had evidence proving Sheperd's innocence. Specifically, interviews with Sheperd's employer, who said he was working at the Ford plant in Dearborn during the crime. Cell phone records also back up Sheperd's alibi, and, not to mention, the witness's statement also said that Sheperd was not the accomplice seen at the scene.
"That's the insidious. That's the evil, malicious, malevolent conduct that really is, frankly it's unfathomable," says Sheperd's attorney, Wolfgang Mueller.
Even so, the prosecutor argued, with no proof, that Sheperd left work while the assembly line was operating, traveled roughly 20 miles to Flat Rock by unknown means, took part in the murder -- and then went back to work without anyone noticing he was gone for two hours.
And then the prosecutor shifted the burden of proof to the accused.
"That's incredible," Mueller says. "The burden of proof is always on the prosecutor. The defendant has to prove nothing. In this case, they told the jury, basically, that the defendant had to prove the negative. That's not how the criminal justice system works."
But the jury took the bait, convicting Sheperd of murder. But even as he served his life sentence in prison, Sheperd never gave up hope.
"Just knowing I was innocent, that's what kept me going every day and my daughter, just knowing I couldn't let them do this to me and take me away from her," he says.
The state Court of Appeals took up Sheperd's case in 2015 and threw out his conviction without calling for a new trial. That's a rarity.
"Until things change, this can happen to anybody, period," he says. "Me, you, anybody watching."
The Wayne County Prosecutor's Office says that the Court of Appeals' opinion, which FOX 2 cited often in this story, was just that - a lot of editorializing and does not address the legal issues in this case.
The officer who led the investigation is now retired and is not commenting. FOX 2 also contacted the Flat Rock mayor's office but has not heard back.