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Black man jailed for four decades finally exonerated after witness admits to lying

Walter Forbes spent 37 years in jail because a key witness lied in her tesitmony. He claims he was naive to believe in the American justice system.

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Walter Forbes from Michigan spent more than 37 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. In May of 1983, he was falsely convicted of arson and murder and sentenced to life in prison. On November 20 this year, he was finally freed after a witness admitted to lying during her testimony, Detroit Free Press reports. Forbes claimed "his patience paid off" when the prosecution's star witness admitted to fabricating her story. Now, he is faced with the tough challenge of rebuilding his life. He was a full-time student at Jackson Community College in 1982 before the American justice system failed him.

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The crime he was accused of committing took place in 1982. One night that year, he broke up a bar fight between some men before Dennis Hall, one of the men involved, shot Forbes. The gunshot wound took a few months to heal. However, Hall was found dead in his apartment in July 1982. He had died in a fire that appeared to be deliberately set. As Hall and Forbes were seen to have been in an altercation, the police found an easy target in the latter. They arrested him in his apartment and he was soon convicted.

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Over the next four decades, Forbes did everything he possibly could to fight the false conviction. Witness testimony from Annice Kennebrew was part of the key evidence used to implicate him. She claimed she saw three men, including Forbes, burn down Hall's century-old, two-story house-turned-apartment on Maple Street in Jackson. Her testimony, it must be noted, was filled with discrepancies. One of the three men even had charges against him dismissed after he passed a polygraph test. The other was acquitted. Forbes was the only man to have ultimately been convicted, likely due to the tension between him and the victim.

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Nonetheless, in 2017, Kennebrew came forward to admit that she had lied in her testimony. She said she never actually saw Forbes at the scene of the fire, as per court documents from an evidentiary hearing in February 2020. They read "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 if she did not implicate Mr. Forbes." The fire may have been part of an insurance fraud scheme orchestrated by the owner of the building. Forbes stated, "Even though it took forever, I’m still grateful she did the right thing, that she did finally tell the truth."

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His faith in the American justice system has nevertheless been shaken. "Calling it the justice system gives a false impression," he said. "Just using the term ‘justice’ gives you the sense that it is a just system. I couldn’t believe it was happening. One of the things I had faith in was that the truth was going to come out, that there was no way they were going to convict me for those lies. Up until I was convicted, I thought the system would work, that it would correct itself. In hindsight, I was naive." Though he knew what the end result would be, he had no clue what he would have to go through to get there or who would help him along the way.

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Forbes is currently staying in metro Detroit with his family. In the coming weeks, he hopes to visit his 94-year-old mom in Mississippi. He now has to adjust to a world that is very different from the one he left behind. For instance, he is still learning how to use smartphones. He said, "I might spend half an hour figuring out what takes someone else 20 seconds. I’ll be missing calls because the phone be acting up on me. I don’t know how to operate it yet." He views readjusting to daily life as "part of the process." He affirmed, "I recognize what I can control and can’t, and when I do see challenges, I don’t stress and I try to find a solution to them." As he works to become independent, he still holds no bitterness towards those who stole almost 40 years of life from him. "I don’t hold contempt for the people who lied to convict me," Forbes stated. "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.”

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