Facts and Procedural History of the Case
On January 20, 1996, the body of Christina Brown, age 12, was discovered beaten and stabbed numerous times in an apartment on the 2700 block of West Boston Boulevard in the City of Detroit. Monson was living with and having sex with the underage girl in an apartment, which had no heat or water. He said the girl told him she was 17-years-old. The Detroit Police investigation revealed that Monson and Brown had been selling drugs from the apartment on Boston. The body of the victim was discovered by Monson and several other occupants of the apartment building. A postmortem examination determined that blunt trauma was the cause of death.
Monson first told the police that he was not at the apartment at all the night before, and returned the next afternoon to find the apartment door open and Brown covered with blood. Monson provided a second statement to police, stating that Brown attacked him in a jealous rage and he stabbed her in self-defense.
Monson was arrested and charged with First Degree Premeditated Murder. Prior to the trial, a motion to suppress the statements was filed and an evidentiary hearing was held. At that hearing, Monson testified that a female supervisor told him that if he confessed, he would be allowed to go home. A male officer then came into the room to take the second statement. Judge Geraldine Bledsoe Ford denied Monson's motion. On March 14, 1997, LaMarr Monson was convicted by a jury of Second Degree Murder for the death of Christina Brown.
In July 2012, approximately 15 years after the conviction of LaMarr Monson, a woman named Shellena Bentley provided a statement to homicide detectives from the Detroit Police Department. She told the police that her former boyfriend, a drug user who had purchased drugs from Monson, was the person who had killed Christina Brown, not Mr. Monson. It appears that there was minimal follow up by the police after this statement. In December 2014, Bentley provided a second statement to the police. The two statements differed in many respects, but still, based on these statements, a Motion for Relief from Judgment was filed by the attorneys for Monson in 2015. Ms. Bentley testified at an evidentiary hearing before Judge Shannon Walker, and was questioned by an assistant prosecutor in an effort to evaluate her credibility and determine the reliability of her statement.
On January 30, 2017, Judge Shannon Walker granted Monson's Motion for a New Trial. The motion was based upon two issues: 1) That Mr. Monson's confession may have been coerced and was therefore unreliable; and 2) That Christina Brown may have been killed by the former boyfriend of Shellena Bentley.
WCPO Request for New Forensic Testing
As a result of the Motion for New Trial, the Wayne County Prosecutor's Office (WCPO) asked the Michigan State Police (MSP) to re-test for latent prints a toilet tank lid found at the scene (the presumptive murder weapon). They also asked for a re-examination of two prints found at the scene that had been previously unidentified. Seven new prints and a palm print were discovered; the new prints and the previously unidentified print were ultimately identified as belonging to Shellena Bentley's former boyfriend. Based on these new findings, Judge Walker granted a new trial.
In the prior homicide investigation, the knife that had been found at the scene was not tested for DNA. WCPO requested that the DPD submit the knife to MSP for DNA testing and for fingerprints. A search of DPD property revealed that the knife was either lost or destroyed. A broken gold chain necklace placed on evidence was also destroyed and could not be tested.
A mattress cover, the toilet tank lid, the victim's clothes, and a swab from the rim of the bathtub were processed for DNA. Only the toilet tank lid, mattress cover and swab from the tub indicated the possible presence of blood. Only the tub sample developed a partial DNA profile; that sample matched the profile of Christina Brown. MSP did note that a negative reaction could be due to the passage of time. The sample from the toilet tank lid, the swab of a possible bloodstain on the tank lid, and the apparent bloodstain from the mattress pad generated two DNA partial profiles; however, no conclusions could be made due to limited data.
Investigation of the Boyfriend of Shellena Bentley
Two WCPO Investigators went to Pittsburgh to interview the boyfriend of Ms. Bentley. He was found to be in poor physical health and denied any involvement in the death of Christina Brown. He said that he did live in the building at the time of the murder and that he was dating Shellena Bentley. He said he sometimes bought drugs from Monson or Christina Brown but that he had not done so on that night because he had to work early the next morning. He also said that he had been in Monson and Christina Brown's apartment and the bathroom several times prior to the murder. He further recalled that he was in the apartment with others on the day that Brown's body was discovered.
WCPO's Dismissal of the Case
Approximately 20 years have passed since the original trial in the case, and the important reasons WCPO is not able to re-try the case are set forth below:
Although Judge Walker denied a Motion to Reconsider her predecessor's ruling on Monson's motion to suppress the confession, the context of Monson's confession is an issue. Monson's statement does not account for how Christina Brown was murdered. His statement references stabbing Brown in self-defense. The medical examiner indicated the presence of stab wounds, but that Christina Brown actually died from blunt force trauma. The initial police reports filed before the completion of the postmortem examination indicated Brown died from multiple stab wounds. This fact supports Monson's defense of a false confession based on what the police believed was the manner of death at the time his statement was taken.
In March 1997, a federal whistleblower lawsuit was filed against the Detroit Police Department. The suit alleged that Inspector Joan Ghogoian, then Commander of the Homicide Department, told several defendants that if they confessed, they would be allowed to go home. It was further alleged that she encouraged a homicide officer to commit perjury. During the lawsuit it was revealed that the officer was reassigned when she refused to commit perjury and reported the misconduct to supervisors in her chain of command.
The issues with former Inspector Ghogoian call into question the voluntariness of Monson's second statement. Although it was taken by a different officer, Monson alleged that a female supervisor told him he could go home if he changed his statement, and then she sent the other officer in to take the statement. In a new trial, the circumstances surrounding the confession would have been admitted into evidence, raising the question that the confession was coerced.
Lost or Destroyed Evidence
At an earlier hearing in 2001, Judge Patricia Fresard issued an order to preserve all evidence in this case. However key pieces of evidence have been destroyed or lost. DNA was relatively new in 1996, but some evidence was being tested in 1996. The victim's clothing, the knife, male clothing on the floor, the toilet tank lid, and a sample taken from the tub were not tested. Glass shards that appear to have blood on them were never collected. The knife was dusted for fingerprints but nothing else. It has since been lost, so future testing is impossible. The Detroit Police Department failed to obey a court order and failed to preserve key evidence that would be crucial to a re-trial in this case.
New Fingerprint Evidence
The investigation and re-testing for latent prints of the toilet tank lid by the Michigan State Police was requested by the Wayne County Prosecutor's Office. As a result, seven new prints and a palm print were discovered; the new prints and the two previously unidentified prints were ultimately identified as belonging Shellena Bentley's former boyfriend. This evidence creates a reasonable doubt that Monson was the killer of Christina Brown.
Conversely, the destruction of important evidence in the case makes it difficult to charge the former boyfriend. By his own admission he was frequently at Monson's apartment and places himself there on the day the body was discovered. The fact that his prints were discovered on the toilet tank lid is not sufficient evidence to bring charges for the murder of Christina Brown.
Statement of Prosecutor Kym Worthy
Prosecutor Kym Worthy said, "Christina Brown was a 12-year-old girl who ran away from home and met LaMarr Monson. While living with him, he had sex with her and she sold drugs at his behest. Her untimely death was violent and brutal. Due to the destruction of evidence, issues surrounding the way the police obtained Monson's confession and the passage of time, we are unable to re-try this case. For similar reasons we are not able to charge anyone else in connection with the murder of Christina.
"The destruction of evidence and the possible coercive conduct of the then-homicide inspector in obtaining the statement of the defendant in this case cannot be condoned. Imprisoned defendants will continue to challenge their convictions.
"The failure of the DPD to retain critical evidence potentially threatens the very foundation of the criminal justice system and the faith placed in it by the people we protect. As a result of this case, and others, I met this year with Chief Craig about the very serious issue of the destruction of evidence in capital cases. I am pleased to say that Chief Craig has agreed to a joint DPD-WCPO workgroup to develop an evidence retention policy."