COVINGTON, Ky. (WDRB) – Locked up since he was 17 for a murder and robbery he claims he had nothing to do with, Mikel Crumes is not scheduled to be released from prison until 2041.
And any hopes of getting out before then seemed remote, especially after the Kentucky Supreme Court upheld his conviction in January 2014.
But later that same year, Crumes caught an unusual break: His co-defendant, Tromonte Rice, who was 14 at the time of the murder, called the Kentucky Innocence Project.
In a dramatic reversal, Rice recanted his earlier trial testimony that Crumes was the trigger man. That set into motion a series of events that resulted in last month’s ruling by the Kentucky Court of Appeals overturning Crumes’ conviction.
“I can’t imagine what it would be like to be 17 years old and knowing that I’m going to go to a cage for the next 30 years of my life for something I didn’t do,” Frankfort attorney Kieran Comer, who currently represents Crumes, said in an interview last week.
The Kentucky Attorney General’s Office said it will appeal the ruling to the state Supreme Court.
The saga again puts a spotlight on how one person’s testimony can lead to a conviction when physical proof is lacking. So-called “snitch” testimony is one of the leading causes of wrongful convictions throughout the country.
Rice, who is now 22, had pleaded guilty in the 2011 crime and testified at trial that Crumes was the shooter, cutting a deal with prosecutors that let him get probation while Crumes was sentenced to in prison.
Rice’s testimony was the key evidence against Crumes.
In fact, footprints found at the scene did not match Crumes’, and investigators found no gunshot residue on him.
But Rice recanted his testimony when he met with Innocence Project attorneys, claiming another man was with him when Dre’Shawn Hammond, 16, was robbed and murdered.
It’s not unusual for recanted testimony to be viewed with skepticism by the courts, and the Kentucky Supreme Court has ruled that “only in extraordinary and unusual circumstances will a new trial be granted because of recanting statements.”
After recanting, Rice was warned by his attorneys, prosecutors and the judge that if he testified that he lied during the original trial, he could be prosecuted for perjury – lying under oath - and his plea deal in the murder case could be thrown out. At that point, Rice could himself be tried for the murder.
Rice initially refused to testify in 2015 but later called Crumes’ attorney, signed a sworn affidavit that he provided false testimony and said he wanted to “clear his conscience” and identify the real killer, according to court records.
He did just that during a February 2017 hearing in Kenton Circuit Court, testifying that Crumes had no involvement in the murder.
“I feel like the wrong man has been convicted over a crime he didn’t commit,” Rice told the judge, according to a video of the hearing.
He said he “was scared” to initially testify against a man identified in court only as “Little E.” Rice testified that Little E had threatened to kill him if he told anybody.
“Crumes didn’t shoot him; he didn’t have nothing to do with it,” Rice testified. “It was me and Little E.”
Asked about the possible legal implications the change in testimony could have on him, Rice said, “I accept my fate.”
The testimony wasn’t enough.
The judge in the case, Patricia Summe, ruled against Crumes.
In part, Little E had been murdered shortly before Rice recanted his testimony.
Summe ruled that implicating a dead man was an “easy scapegoat.”
“If he says this isn’t truthful, how many years from now is he going to say something else was untruthful?” Summe asked during the 2017 hearing.
Summe also found that Rice’s most recent testimony had been inconsistent and noted there was other evidence in the trial against Crumes, namely cell tower data indicating that Crumes was in the vicinity of the murder.
“He was devastated,” Comer said of his client. “It crushed me. I can’t imagine what he felt like.”
Two more years passed until Comer got a phone call late last month while driving from a court hearing in Lawrence County.
“I stopped my car on the side of the road, on U.S. 23 in Lawrence County and got out and danced in the rain,” he said.
The Kentucky Court of Appeals had thrown out Crumes’ conviction, finding that without the “original testimony of Rice, a different verdict could have reasonably resulted.”
“We believe that our system of justice should be committed to elucidating the truth rather than adhering to a procedure that would tend to suppress it – and, in the process to ensure the untenable and inhumane result of perpetuating the incarceration of an innocent person,” the unanimous ruling said.
The appeals court sent the case back to Kenton Circuit Court for a new trial. And the court ruled Crumes is entitled to access to the raw cell phone data from Cincinnati Bell in order for his expert to present testimony at his new trial.
Crumes’ mother screamed for “a good 30 seconds straight” upon hearing the news, Comer said.
Still locked up in the Eastern Kentucky Correctional Complex, Crumes himself is “guardedly optimistic,” knowing, given all of the twists and turns the case has taken already, it’s not over yet, his attorney said.
Besides a possible overturn by the Kentucky Supreme Court, Kenton County prosecutors could choose to retry Crumes.
Kenton Commonwealth’s Attorney Rob Sanders did not return a phone call seeking comment.
The Kentucky Attorney General’s office, which fought the appeal of Crumes’ conviction, had argued that Rice contradicted himself in his new testimony, initially testifying that he only saw Crumes the day of the murder when they played dice that afternoon.
He later testified he saw Crumes in the woods before the dice game and that Crumes had showed him a gun and fired it. Another witness at the trial had said the two teens spent the afternoon and evening with the victim.
While incarcerated, Crumes obtained his GED and received financial aid to take college courses and pursue a career in counseling or landscaping, according to court records.
Crumes’ family did not return a message seeking comment left with his attorney.
The family of the victim, Dre’Shawn Hammond, could not be reached for comment. He was shot multiple times on a trail in the woods in Covington.
As for Rice, his probation was revoked in this case and he was charged with perjury. The charge was dismissed by a motion from the prosecutor. It is unclear why. He is also currently in prison on separate charges.
Comer said Rice’s decision to come forward and change his testimony may have saved an innocent man from “sitting in a case for 30 years contemplating that his life is gone for something he never did.”
“A young man has gone to prison for far too long and we are hoping to get his childhood and life back.”
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