Detroit, MI

Wrongfully Convicted? Judge to Decide Detroit Man's Fate

Tracy Stengel
Photo byby permission of Steve Crane.

When a heinous crime is committed, the perpetrator deserves to be behind bars. But studies estimate that between 4 to 6% of incarcerated people are innocent.

Howard McKnight claims he is one of them. He’s been in prison for over a decade.

On Wednesday, October 25, 2023, Hon. Bridget M. Hathaway will respond to Howard’s Motion for Relief of Judgement in Wayne County Circuit Court. If she rules in Howard’s favor, he may be released or get a new trial.

In an affidavit signed September 8, 2022, Howard’s original lawyer, James C. Howarth said, “I have seldom, if ever, seen a case wherein so much reasonable doubt was put aside by the judge and jury in order to obtain a doubtful verdict.”

It began on New Year’s Eve with 2013 fast approaching. An elderly couple left a Detroit casino and realized their tire was flat. The husband pulled off Gratiot Avenue and onto a side street. He thought the truck would have to be pushed home. A man approached them on foot and offered to help. As the wife called her son for assistance, she offered the man her phone so he could give her son directions. He gave her the phone back and walked away.

This should have been a story about a kindhearted Good Samaritan. Instead, it’s quite the opposite.

Five or ten minutes later, the man returned and chatted outside the vehicle with the husband. Then, he pulled out a gun and demanded the wife’s rings. When she gave them to him, he threw them down because they weren’t valuable. Then, he ordered her to give him her gold chain with a diamond pendant. Next, he took the $280 she had in her purse.

Still unsatisfied, he wanted more — he wanted the wife.

When the husband realized the man’s intentions, he got on his knees and begged the man to reconsider.

The man forced the husband in the truck and ordered him to put his hands on the steering wheel.

The husband recently had a stroke. It was difficult to raise his arms.

The man threatened to shoot. Then, he ordered the wife to lay down. He asked if she had any protection.

She did not.

After he assaulted her, he ran and fired off two or three shots.

The couple called 911. After waiting 30 minutes, they decided it was safer to walk home than stay at the scene. Their son took them to the hospital.

The wife described her assailant as a black male with medium-dark complexion, 5’10 with a medium build, some facial hair, and wearing a black hoodie and black jeans.

That same New Year’s Eve, Howard McKnight and his girlfriend, Johnesha Fleming, were visiting Johnesha’s mother until about 9 PM. They were driven back to their Redford, Michigan home by Johnesha’s sister because neither Howard or Johnesha owned a vehicle. They remained in their residence the rest of the night. They lived 31 minutes and almost 25 miles from the scene of the crime.

When news of the crime circulated, Howard’s ex-girlfriend called Crime Stoppers and said Howard was guilty of the rape and robbery. Allegedly, she did this for two reasons — spite and reward money.

On January 10, 2013, Howard and Johnesha were grocery shopping when Detroit police arrested Howard and brought Johnesha in for questioning. She told them Howard did not own a gun. They never asked if Howard was with her the night of the incident nor was she called to testify.

At the trial, Howard was found guilty by a jury and received a 30-year prison sentence.

From the beginning, Howard declared his innocence. Finally, someone listened. In December 2019 Steve Crane, a private investigator of ACS Professional Investigations, offered to work on Howard’s case pro bono.

Steve interviewed a witness who had observed a man pushing a truck by his house on that fateful New Year’s Eve. The witness didn’t know the man by name but had seen him in the neighborhood. He described him as a black male in his mid-30s to early 40s wearing a hoodie.

Steve obtained an affidavit from the man saying Howard McKnight was not the man pushing the vehicle. He also obtained an affidavit from Johnesha stating she was with Howard the entire night and they didn’t leave their residence after 9 PM.

When Steve interviewed the victims, they said they didn’t want to go through another court hearing and relive that hellish New Year’s Eve again. The husband said he picked Howard out of the lineup because he was the only one not making eye contact. The wife said she picked Howard out because of his body type.

Steve arranged for Cooley Law School to do Y-STR DNA testing. The results were inconclusive.

In 2022, the Cooley Innocence Project uncovered new evidence that may help prove Howard’s innocence. On January 2, 2013, a crime was committed in the same neighborhood about 48 hours after the crime Howard was convicted of occurred — and it’s eerily similar.

It was around 10 PM and a couple was walking to their Whittier Street home. Terence Banks, a black man aged 42, approached them. He robbed them and walked them to their apartment at gun point. He told the husband he was going to rape his wife. The husband ran into the bedroom and returned with a .22 caliber rifle. When Terence Banks fled, the husband chased him down the hallway while firing the gun numerous times.

Terence Banks died in the stairwell before first responders arrived. He was wearing a black hoodie and black pants.

Do you believe Terence Banks also committed the almost identical crime on New Year’s Eve or was that merely a coincidence? I’d love to read your opinions in the comments!

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Tracy explores the world with a positive eye, an open heart, and a sprinkling of humor. Without laughter, she would be lost.

Onsted, MI

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