Clock is ticking on decades-old Michigan case
Eric Zorn, Columnist, Chicago Tribune
October 16, 2003
A story that began 30 years ago with the shooting of Benton Harbor police detective Thomas Schadler has presented one mystery after another. Schadler was Christmas shopping, out of uniform and off duty, in late 1973 when, without warning or apparent provocation, another customer in a small, downtown shop pulled out a .22 caliber handgun and fired six shots into Schadler's head and neck at short range.
Was it a planned hit? Doubtful. Schadler had never been in the store before and the attacker preceded him and his wife through the doors by 15 minutes.
A botched robbery? Again, doubtful. The gunman made no attempt to conceal his features, and he'd been alone with the clerk more than long enough to rob her if that was his intent. A spontaneous act of revenge for something Schadler had done on the job? Also doubtful. Neither Schadler, who never lost consciousness and recovered quickly from the attack, nor his wife recognized the attacker.
The shooter fled on foot and eluded a police dragnet. Two years later, a man arrested in Benton Harbor on a drug charge offered police information that his friend Maurice Carter, then 31, had been the gunman in the Schadler case.
Carter had no record of criminal violence, but police extradited him from Indiana. Before they could conduct a lineup for witnesses, Carter's photograph appeared on the front page of the local newspaper.
The store clerk, Gwendolyn Gill, who'd had the best and longest look at the gunman, was certain Carter was not the shooter.
"One hundred percent definitely not," said Gill, who now goes by her married name Baird, when Tribune reporter Steve Mills and I interviewed her at the Benton Harbor school where she teaches special education.
Carter, who, like Baird, is African-American, "is much lighter-skinned," she said, stressing that the shooter was an extremely dark-skinned African-American. "And much thinner. He looked nothing like the gunman."
But Schadler and his wife identified Carter in a lineup, even though they initially had been unable to give investigators a description.
Also identifying Carter as the gunman was a woman in an office across the street from the store who said she got a glimpse of the gunman as he fled.
Meanwhile, the informant recanted his story and police found no physical evidence to implicate Carter.
The transcript of Carter's 1976 attempted-murder trial is a mess of conflicting descriptions of the incident, the escape and the perpetrator. How did prosecutors convict Carter anyway? Many think the answer to this mystery is that an all-white Berrien County jury put extra faith in the testimony of the Schadlers and the woman from the office across the street, who were also white.
Carter became a cause celebre. The threadbare nature of the case against him was the subject of network TV exposes and numerous print accounts, including one recently by the Tribune's Colleen Mastony that focused on Carter as a symbol of frustration African-Americans feel about the administration of justice in southwest Michigan.
The Innocence Project at the University of Wisconsin Law School has led a fight since 1998 to win Carter a new trial based on new witnesses and other compelling claims. That effort awaits a judge's ruling.
Although it's a bit of a mystery why Carter's case for a new trial or executive clemency can't get traction, it's a bigger mystery why Carter, now 59, remains locked up 27 years after his conviction when those convicted of successful murder attempts often serve less time.
Adding to the mystery is why Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm is standing by even though Carter is in "imminent danger of death" from end-stage liver disease, according to Dr. Michael Lucey, head of gastroenterology and hepatology at the University of Wisconsin Medical School, who has examined his prison medical records.
"[Carter's] going to die very soon unless he gets a liver transplant," said Doug Tjapkes, an activist who has long worked on Carter's behalf and is mounting a "last-ditch, frantic effort" to speed the case along. "But Michigan hospitals won't consider him for a transplant as long as he's locked up."
"We're following the normal process," said a Granholm spokeswoman.
Normal won't do. Unless Granholm acts now, all the mysteries in this case will add up to tragedy.