Have you ever been accused of something you didn’t do? Chances are you have, it happens to almost everyone. Maybe as a kid you were accused of breaking something you didn’t, or as an adult you may have been accused of cheating on a spouse when you didn’t. But for Walter Forbes, a witness lied in court, and that lie landed him in prison for a total of 37 years.
As I write this, I’m 32 years old. Forbes spent my entire life, plus 5 years, behind bars for something that he didn’t do. It is an astoundingly long time to be punished for a crime you didn’t commit. But how did Forbes land in prison for so long?
In 1982, Forbes was a student at Jackson Community College working toward the goal of starting a real estate development firm after he graduated from college. One night, he witnessed a bar fight happening just outside of the bar and decided to intervene. One of the individuals involved in the bar fight, Dennis Hall, took revenge on Forbes the following day by shooting him four times.
Shortly after the shooting, Hall died after his apartment caught on fire. Investigators found that the fire was fueled in part by accelerants, including a gasoline container. Hall’s fiancé and young daughter were fortunately both able to escape the flames.
In an interview with CNN, Forbes reflected on that event. He says that, at the time, he thought they might try to pin the arson on him.
“Some way they’re going to try to frame this on me,” Forbes told CNN. “That thought went through my mind.“
His suspicion would come true three months later when Annice Kennebrew testified in court documents that she saw Forbes and two others carrying red gasoline containers near the building and pouring the gasoline out around it.
Things didn’t add up
Kennebrew’s testimony threw the entire case into question. Her account of what happened didn’t quite match up with what investigators found at the scene of the arson. Investigators found a blue gasoline container at the scene, not a red one.
Kennebrew also described gasoline being poured on the exterior of the apartment when investigators could only find evidence of accelerants on the inside of the apartment.
It would be nearly 4 decades before the revelation that this witness lied would come to light.
In court, evidence was submitted that the building’s owner, David Jones, may have been responsible for the fire. Jones reportedly had the building insured for well above the maximum resale of the property. The insurance eventually paid out $50,200 on the building, which at the time was worth $35,000.
Another witness came forward to testify that an acquaintance had admitted to accepting $1,000 from Jones to start the fire.
But according to Imran Syed, Forbes’ current lawyer, the tip was deemed inadmissible in court. The sole permissible witness lied in court.
It is not clear whether or not Jones set the fire at his Jackson property in 1982, but in 1990, Jones pleaded no contest in an arson insurance fraud scheme. Forbes reportedly saw a newspaper article about the 1990 arson case and detected a pattern.
In 2010, Forbes reached out to an organization called the Michigan Innocence Clinic which then began reviewing his case.
The Michigan Innocence Clinic is operated by lawyers and students at the University of Michigan. At the clinic, students investigate and litigate cases on behalf of prisoners who have new evidence that may establish their innocence, according to their website. When Forbes approached them about his case, the students there were surprised that a murder conviction was handed down based on the testimony of only one witness.
“We knew there were two things we wanted: to speak to the witness and see what her story was. We also knew there had been an alternate suspect from the beginning in this case,” said Syed.
Their next step was to contact Kennebrew to follow up with her about what she saw. Initially, she refused, but in 2017, she invited Syed’s team to a friend’s home where she admitted that she lied about what she saw.
“She came clean,” Syed said. “She said that at the time of the fire she was 19, and there were two men in the community that took advantage of that.”
Kennewbrew was put under incredible pressure by two men who approached her and demanded that she implicate Forbes in the arson.
“They threatened to kill my children, parents, siblings, and me if I did not report to the police and testify at trial that I saw Walter and the other two men set the fire,” Kennebrew said in a sworn 2017 affidavit.
“Everything I told police, and everything I testified to at trial relating to my witnessing the setting of the fire, was a fabrication,” she said in the affidavit. “As far as I know, Walter had nothing to do with this crime.”
The men who pressured her to provide false testimony have both died. David Jones has also since passed away.
Kennebrew’s defense was that she was very young and afraid, but that her decision to recant her testimony was made because it was the right thing to do.
With the revelation that the sole witness lied in court, Forbes was finally cleared of any wrongdoing.
After nearly 38 years in prison, Forbes was freed from prison on November 20, 2020. Before he was wrongfully imprisoned, Forbes planned to start a real estate development firm. But after almost 4 decades in prison, his plans have changed.
Forbes hopes to continue working with prison reform groups, a mission that he became involved with while still in prison.