After 25 years in prison, George DeJesus said the realization that he had been released only began to sink in when he was finally able to take off his prison uniform and put on his own clothes – including a sweatshirt with a picture of him and his brother under the word “innocent”.
“When I took them off and started putting them on, every stitch of clothing I put on, my smile just got bigger and bigger,” he said. “It was about the time – when I put those clothes on, it was real to me.”
Mr DeJesus, 44, was speaking on Tuesday after a judge freed him and his brother, Melvin DeJesus, 48, overturning their convictions in the 1995 murder of their neighbor Margaret Midkiff, who was found naked in his basement in Pontiac, Michigan, with a pillowcase over his head and wires binding his neck, wrists and ankles.
The brothers had always maintained they were at a party when Ms Midkiff was murdered, but they were convicted and sentenced to life without parole in 1997 based on testimony from Brandon Gohagen, who claimed the brothers l forced him to rape Mrs. Midkiff and then trampled her to death.
Robyn B. Frankel, director of the Michigan attorney general’s sentencing integrity unit, said a thorough review of the evidence in the case showed Mr. Gohagen blamed the brothers in exchange for a deal with prosecutors that allowed him to plead guilty to lesser charges. and avoid a mandatory life sentence.
“He ended up throwing George and Melvin under the bus and saying they actually participated and forced him,” said Lori Montgomery, another prosecutor with the Conviction Integrity Unit, which was established in 2019 and began looking into the case in 2020. “But really, what we found out was that he, Brandon Gohagen, committed this crime alone.
Both brothers thanked their mother, Elizabeth DeJesus, for helping them continue their fight to be exonerated, year after year and decade after decade.
“It was hard because you could lose faith,” George DeJesus said at a news conference where the brothers hugged each other, their parents and other loved ones. “But we always fought hard and just when we felt that momentum slowing, my mum made us promise that we would never give up, no matter what.”
Ms DeJesus put her arms around her sons and said: “One wrongful conviction is too much. So I brought my boys here and I have to thank God for that. We are blessed.”
The brothers were helped by the Cooley Innocence Project at Western Michigan University and the University of Michigan Innocence Clinic, which worked on their cases for years before the Conviction Integrity Unit agreed to review the case.
Ms Frankel said the examination revealed that the DNA on the victim’s body matched Mr Gohagen’s DNA. No DNA compatible with George or Melvin DeJesus has been found.
Witnesses also corroborated the brothers’ alibi that they were at a party the night Mr Gohagen said they killed Ms Midkiff, Ms Frankel said.
In 2016, the case was further unraveled when a DNA search linked Mr. Gohagen to the sexual assault and murder of another Pontiac woman, Rosalia Brantley, in 1994, about 11 months before Ms. Midkiff sexually assaulted and killed in a startlingly similar crime. , said Ms. Frankel.
Ms Brantley, whose body was also found naked and tied up three miles from Ms Midkiff’s home, had been stabbed and beaten to death, Ms Frankel said.
In 2017 Mr Gohagen, who was serving a 35 to 80 year prison sentence for second degree murder and first degree criminal sexual conduct in the murder of Ms Midkiff, was found guilty of the murder and sexual assault of Mrs. Brantley and sentenced to life. in prison without parole.
Ms Frankel said the Conviction Integrity Unit had identified 12 other women who had been emotionally, physically and sexually abused by Mr Gohagen in the 1990s, undermining his claim that the DeJesus brothers forced him to assault sexually Mrs. Midkiff against her will.
Mr. Gohagen was a “serial rapist” who “went wild in the neighborhood”, Ms. Frankel said.
Dana Nessel, Michigan’s attorney general, said the case presented a “particularly tenuous situation” in which the brothers were convicted primarily based on the testimony of a perpetrator who sexually assaulted the victim.
“It’s a chilling set of circumstances to know that a person can spend the rest of their life behind bars with no evidence other than that,” she said. “We really have to be careful and we really have to be suspicious to make sure people don’t go to jail on flimsy evidence like this.”
Speaking to George DeJesus, Ms Nessel said: ‘I’m so sorry this happened to you and your family. Nobody deserves this. And it is a total miscarriage of justice.
Michigan exonerated prisoners are entitled to one year of housing and two years of other services, such as help finding a job, work clothes and tools, prosecutors said.
The brothers said they planned to hold a family reunion as they began to plan their life after prison.
“I’ve waited so long for this,” Melvin DeJesus said. “And you know the words I’ve heard the most?” ‘Be patient.’ How long can you be patient? Every year I have been patient. Finally, finally, we are free.