DNA clears man of fireworks shootings
BY BEN SCHMITT
October 5, 2004
A crowd gathered on the steps of the Frank Murphy Hall of Justice on Monday, cheering and waving their arms as Daron Caldwell walked out of jail and hopped into his lawyer's black Mercedes-Benz.
Caldwell spent three months in the Wayne County Jail on $100-million bond, proclaiming his innocence. Police fingered him early as the suspect in the June 23 Hart Plaza fireworks shootings. But he walked out of jail Monday three hours after prosecutors dropped all charges.
As he emerged, he waved, and spoke of a haircut and a good meal.
The developments leave the city of Detroit with no suspects in one of the most high-profile shootings of the past year and a new mystery: The county prosecutor now says that two guns, not one, were fired that night.
For Caldwell, a 32-year-old Detroiter, all that is now someone else's problem. He hugged his attorney, Marlon Blake Evans, on Monday, and took a look at jail from the outside.
"I feel OK," he said, climbing into the car. "Marlon's going to take me to get something good to eat and we're going to celebrate."
Earlier Monday, Detroit Police Chief Ella Bully-Cummings and Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy staged a tense news conference and said a DNA analysis led to the dismissal of a second-degree murder charge and six counts of assault with intent to murder.
Worthy said ballistics tests determined that two guns, not one, were fired; a bullet found in a survivor did not match the gun taken from the crime scene.Worthy said a bullet pulled from a 17-year-old victim, Brandon Patterson, indicated it was shot from a 9 mm handgun different from the gun recovered at the crime scene.
"Mr. Caldwell's DNA failed to match any of the physical evidence found at the scene of the shooting," she said.
"Further fired evidence suggests that there were two weapons used."
It was a controversial case from the beginning. Police originally said Caldwell shot nine people during the Freedom Fireworks Festival, a rampage that received nationwide publicity and took place as National Football League officials were in town in connection with the city's 2006 Super Bowl.
The plaza and Jefferson Avenue were jammed with thousands of people when the bullets started flying. The area quickly turned chaotic as police and emergency workers descended on the scene and spectators tried to flee as fireworks exploded overhead.
One of the victims, Donald Murphy, 47, died Aug. 2 of complications related to a gunshot wound.
Homicide officers worked around the clock under intense pressure. They announced Caldwell's arrest the next day.
He maintained he had watched the fireworks from the Shorecrest Motor Inn on East Jefferson.
"They made me look like a menace to society," Caldwell said Monday. "They had to arrest someone because of the Super Bowl.
"This was a rush to judgment."
In previous court appearances, Caldwell insisted he didn't do it. He broke down and screamed at judges.
Family and supporters wore T-shirts emblazoned with his photo, demanding his freedom. Outside, groups took up his cause.
"You can only take so much," he said, explaining the outbreaks. "I had a lot weighing down on me."
Worthy said three people positively identified Caldwell as the shooter, despite other witnesses who said he did not resemble the gunman.
"We do not think we erred in any way, shape, form or fashion in charging Mr. Caldwell," said Worthy, who was appointed prosecutor in January and is running unopposed for the post next month.
One of the victims, Aundrea Malone, said otherwise.
"I never understood why they had to hold him in the first place," the 19-year-old Detroiter said. "I think he was the wrong guy. I'm happy for him."
Ameer Spinks, 19, of Detroit, who was with one of the victims at the fireworks, said Monday that he went to Detroit police after seeing Caldwell on television in June and told them the shooter was a shorter, darker man with only a goatee, not a full beard like Caldwell has.
"There's no way he could have grown that much hair on his face the next day," Spinks said.
"My friends and I told the police, 'That's not him.' I'm really pleased for him because I knew he wasn't the shooter."
Worthy said results of DNA testing were conveyed to her Friday night and "failed to match any of the physical evidence found at the scene of the shooting." After that, she said, she did not have a provable case.
"What we think and what we can prove in court are two different things." Worthy said.
A 9mm handgun used in the shootings, a baseball hat, pair of Nike shoes and a watch were tested in a forensics lab, though Worthy was vague about the exact type of biological traces left behind on those pieces of evidence.
Evans, Caldwell's lawyer, called the DNA testing "crap."
"I'm not going to slam anyone," he said, "but why did they wait so long to have this DNA evidence tested?"
Worthy said Caldwell's blood was drawn for analysis Sept. 9.
Chief Bully-Cummings insisted she had no regrets about how the case was handled. "We support the prosecutor in this decision," she said. "I never want the wrong person to be convicted for any crime, ever."
But, she cautioned: This "does not preclude charges being made against Mr. Caldwell at a future date."
The father of Donald Murphy, the sole person killed in the shootings, said he didn't know how to take Monday's news about Caldwell. "If he is the wrong guy, I think he should be turned loose," said Lawyer Murphy, 69, of Detroit. "But I would hate for him to be turned loose and do something like that again."
Murphy said he wonders whether Caldwell is withholding information.
"There may be another guy who did the shootings, but I think Daron Caldwell knows something about it," he said. "I have faith in the police."
At the home of Caldwell's mother, jubilant family members arrived throughout the day, waiting for him to return from interviews.
Kevin Caldwell, a 40-year-old cousin, said: "I'm glad to have him at home, vindicated.
"The family was going through a lot with this. They knew they had the wrong person."
Blanche Thomas was thrilled to see her son go free.
"Thanks be to God, this nightmare is finally over with," she said. "I visited him in jail every Monday, and we just prayed and prayed."
Contact BEN SCHMITT at 313-223-4296 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Staff writer Cecil Angel contributed to this report.
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