LawHanging by a nail
Kylleen Hargrave-Thomas had racked up her fair share of bad experiences with men. But in the fall of 1991, the divorced mother of two sons thought she’d finally found a winner.
Joe Bernal, a man she had broken up with the previous summer, asked her for a second chance. He’d always been kind to her boys, and he vowed that he’d cut back on the drinking that had driven them apart. So she agreed, happily, to give it another go. At last, she thought, it looked like a man was willing to put some effort into a relationship.
And for her 39th birthday, on Oct. 9, Joe went all-out to impress her. He surprised the dental hygienist with two dozen red roses and a gold bracelet. Then they and another couple headed from their homes in suburban Westland into Detroit for dinner in Greektown and a Luther Vandross concert.
Kylleen said it was her best birthday ever.
But the euphoria wouldn’t last.
Two days later, as Kylleen was heading to a meeting with her son’s junior-high-school guidance counselor, one of Joe’s neighbors saw smoke pouring from his bedroom window shortly after 7 a.m. and called the Fire Department.
Firefighters arrived minutes later, and broke through the front door. They found Joe upstairs, face down on his queen-size bed, wearing only underwear, fire raging around him.
It was only after extinguishing the blaze that they realized Joe was dead. Half his face and much of his left side were horribly burned, but it wasn’t flame or smoke that killed him. Someone had buried a steak knife into his heart.
The charred weapon lay on the floor next to his bed. An arson investigator would later determine the smoldering fire had been burning between 15 and 100 minutes before firefighters arrived.
Westland police immediately canvassed the neighborhood in an attempt to learn who killed the 42-year-old factory worker. Within hours, the investigation would focus on Hargrave-Thomas, who had no previous criminal record.
Two years later, a Wayne County judge found her guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced her to life in prison.
For police, the case was open-and-shut from day one. Likewise, the prosecutor who helped put Hargrave-Thomas behind bars is convinced the murderer of Joe Bernal has been caught and punished.
Hargrave-Thomas, however, continues to maintain her innocence. And she is not alone in making that claim. A law professor who has already won the release of three people wrongly accused of murder has taken up her case. After utilizing a team of University of Michigan law school students to help investigate the case, attorney Andrea Lyon now alleges that Hargrave-Thomas was deprived of her constitutional right to a fair trail by ineffective counsel and authorities who withheld critical information.
According to Lyon, Hargrave-Thomas was convicted on the flimsiest of evidence: a broken fingernail of questionable importance, a witness’ fleeting glance as two cars passed in the dark, and some “minor” inconsistencies in Hargrave-Thomas’ story.
“If her conviction is upheld,” argued Lyon, “Ms. Hargrave-Thomas will spend the rest of her life in prison for a crime she did not commit on the basis of constitutionally insufficient evidence.’’
So far, however, the courts have held a different view. All attempts at the state level to win a new trial have failed. The state appellate court didn’t accept arguments that Hargrave-Thomas was convicted on insufficient evidence, that her defense counsel was inadequate or that she was denied due process. The state Supreme Court declined to hear the case.
Although new evidence has since been found that Lyon says supports claims of innocence, Hargrave-Thomas is running out of options as she awaits a crucial decision from a federal judge.
Here, according to court documents and an independent investigation conducted for the Metro Times, is the story of how Kylleen Hargrave-Thomas ended up in prison, facing the possibility she will spend the rest of her life behind bars.
Man with a past
Manuel Joseph Bernal, called Joe by his friends, was the eldest son in a tight-knit Hispanic family. Especially close to his mother, he visited her every day on his lunch break from the Ford Rouge plant, where he worked in the rail yard.
His friends described him as loyal, laid-back and generous. But his life was complicated by its share of soap opera-worthy problems.
Joe was twice divorced, with two children from his first marriage. The year before his death, his second wife, Dianne — who worked in a Westland dentist’s office with Kylleen — left him to move in with their next-door neighbor, and Joe’s co-worker, Randy Williams. The divorce, finalized on Sept. 20, less than a month before Joe’s death, was a messy one and feelings remained bitter.
There were other troubles, as well.
Kylleen said Joe had been known to drink heavily. Her parents and her eight siblings considered it a problem, especially after an inebriated appearance at a Fourth of July gathering that summer. Shortly after that, Joe and Kylleen broke up.
And then there were the drugs. Police reports show that Joe took methadone to combat a heroin addiction that began during his tour of duty in Vietnam. After his death, evidence surfaced suggesting that Joe was still involved with drugs. Kylleen said she knew Joe had a past problem with drugs, but hadn’t seen signs that he was involved with them while they were dating. At one point, she said, he even kicked a roommate out of his house for using drugs.
Joe started dating Kylleen in March 1991 after meeting through friends from Station 885, a Plymouth restaurant and bar. They dated until just after that Fourth of July drinking incident. But in late August, he followed her home from church and asked her to take him back. And she did.
Bernal’s friends who accompanied Joe and Kylleen on the night of her birthday celebration said things seemed to be going well.
But Joe’s mother, Helen Bernal, told police she didn’t approve of the rekindled romance. She was sure Kylleen would break his heart, like all the other women he dated had done. Plus, Kylleen hurt him earlier that summer when she ended their relationship without a reason, Helen Bernal told police.
Family members declined to comment for this report, other than to say they believe the right person was convicted.
Night of the murder
Kylleen and Joe were together at Bernal’s house in the hours before he died. That much is certain. They talked for a couple hours that evening, she said, about life and love, and bills. Joe was feeling flush because he’d received a bonus from work, Kylleen said. She remembered a cash roll of about $300 on his dresser. She also recalled Joe giving her $50 when she offered to pay his gas bill on her way past that office the next day.
Before she left for home, she drove Joe to the corner gas station to get a pack of cigarettes. He ended up using the cash he’d given Kylleen, she said, because his brand — Kool — was on sale, and he wanted to stock up. The station attendant told police he remembered that Joe bought some cigarettes then quickly returned to buy seven more packs with a $50 bill.
The attendant said he made the sale shortly after he started work at 11 p.m. or 11:30. The cash register tape showed the purchase at 11:51 p.m., just as Kylleen told police.
Kylleen said she drove Joe back home, and they sat in the car in his driveway kissing for a couple minutes.
As he went inside, she said, the radio DJ announced it was midnight.
Kylleen’s sons said they remembered hearing Kylleen come in that night.
Once home, Kylleen said, she called Joe to let him know she’d arrived safely, and they talked a while longer before she went to sleep.
In the morning, she said, she and her boys got up a little after 6. She had an appointment with her youngest son’s guidance counselor at 7:30 a.m.
She tried calling Joe, twice on his car phone, she said — they usually spoke in the morning — but there wasn’t an answer. She also tried him twice at home. It was busy the first time, the answering machine was on the second time she called, she said. She said she made all the calls between about 6:40 a.m. and 7 a.m. Police records don’t indicate what, if anything, was on the answering machine tape. Lyon said the tape is no longer in the evidence box, and no one knows what happened to it. Kylleen said she would have driven by Joe’s house to make sure he was up for work, but she didn’t have time because of the school appointment.
Later that morning, Joe’s mother called Kylleen at work to tell her Joe was dead. Kylleen’s co-workers told police she was visibly shaken, saying, “Oh no. Oh no. … I’ve been trying to call him all morning.” She immediately called the Westland Police Department, she and her co-workers said. Then a co-worker drove her to the police station and another called for her sister to meet her there.
Cops zero in
In their rounds of the neighborhood that day, police interviewed several neighbors who said they saw Joe’s garage door opened partway early that morning. It seemed strange to the neighbors and Joe’s friends, who described him as extremely security conscious. The door always was closed unless Joe was in the garage, they told police. There was also a bubble mirror mounted in the garage so that he could keep an eye on outside activity. Following his death, several guns were found in the house.
But other than the garage door, according to police reports, no one noticed anything unusual until a neighbor called the Fire Department at 7:11 a.m.
And at day’s end, Sgt. Russell Nowaczck, the detective in charge, apparently had no witnesses and no physical evidence. Nonetheless, Nowaczck was convinced he’d fingered the culprit.
He testified later that conflicting statements from Kylleen regarding details of what happened in the hours before the murder made her the prime suspect. Then there was the fact Hargrave-Thomas had a remote control to open Bernal’s garage door, giving her access to his house. That was key, said Nowaczck, because there were no signs of forced entry.
Also, the first time he accused Hargrave-Thomas of the murder, she did not deny it, but said she felt sick and asked for a lawyer. That response, the now-retired Nowaczck said, convinced him he had the killer.
But hunches don’t bring convictions. A week after Joe’s death, police would find a broken artificial thumbnail in Kylleen’s trash. Nowaczck became convinced she’d broken it while committing the crime, even though the medical examiner and lab tests would later discredit that theory. Nowaczck’s big break came six months after the murder, when Bernal’s family led the detective to Marymargaret Brown, who would eventually place Hargrave-Thomas in Bernal’s neighborhood at about 5 the morning he was killed.
That ID, along with the broken fingernail and Kylleen’s conflicting statements, were all Nowaczck needed to make the arrest.
By any account, the trial of Kylleen Hargrave-Thomas was an odd affair. Although the actual proceedings took only seven days, they were spread out across five months. Such delays were possible because no jury was involved. Hargrave-Thomas and her attorney, Rene Cooper, had decided to put her fate entirely in the hands of Judge Wendy Baxter.
Bench trials often suffer delays, Lyon said, because there is no jury to worry about. They are easier to schedule around other events. But the delays are more typically four or five weeks, not four or five months.
The long delays between court dates didn’t help Hargrave-Thomas.
The judge treated the prosecution’s key witness with skepticism in June 1993. But by the time she rendered her verdict in November, Baxter said, “I finally came to believe the testimony of the witness, whose name escapes me right now. The woman who, very surprising to me, pointed you out in court. I didn’t expect that in her testimony. I’m trying to think of her name.”
To obtain a first-degree murder conviction with only circumstantial evidence, prosecutors typically need to establish a motive to convince a judge or jury of proof beyond a reasonable doubt, Lyon said. In this case, according to the appeal, there was no evidence showing why Kylleen would want Joe dead.
But there was a theory.
Joe’s mother, who testified that she was opposed to the relationship, believed he would break it off with Kylleen. Just that week, Joe had asked to bring Kylleen to his mother’s house for Thanksgiving dinner, but the mother said no. Joe and his mother had argued about Kylleen the morning before the murder, the mother testified, saying she didn’t like the divorcee.
Using that testimony as a springboard, prosecutor Michael Reynolds contended that Joe and Kylleen argued about marriage the night of the murder. Kylleen wanted to wed, he speculated, and Joe didn’t.
That supposed jilting, the prosecutor maintained, was enough to drive Kylleen into a homicidal rage.
According to Reynolds’ scenario, this is what occurred:
After returning from the gas station, both went inside Joe’s home. While he slept, Kylleen crept downstairs and grabbed a 5-inch steak knife from the kitchen. Then she silently climbed back up the steps, and, though right-handed, with expert precision and power, held the knife in her left hand to drive the blade deep into Joe’s heart, pulling it out halfway and then plunging it in again.
She dropped the weapon on the floor and then drove home to her two boys.
Kylleen returned to Joe’s house about 5 a.m., nearly colliding with one of his neighbors in her haste. Using a remote control, she let herself in through Joe’s garage, then, using matches or a lighter, she set his bed on fire before making the 7-minute drive back home to awake the boys and get ready for a 7:30 a.m. appointment with her youngest son’s guidance counselor.
Witness for the prosecution
The state’s star witness was Marymargaret Brown, who lived in Joe’s neighborhood and worked at a General Motors plant.
At trial, Brown described nearly colliding with an oncoming car about 5 a.m. as she drove through Bernal’s neighborhood on her way to work.
Despite only a fleeting glance through car windows in the predawn darkness, Brown provided a detailed description of a woman between 35 and 45 years old with shoulder-length, frosted, dishwater-blond hair, poofed at the sides.
She described the woman as rather pretty, with bags under her eyes “like she’d been out all night with the girls.” And, she said, she remembered that the driver of the dark sporty car wore a dark coat with the collar turned up.
When it came to other details, however, Brown’s powers of observation were less impressive.
For example, although her fleeting, nighttime glance of Hargrave-Thomas was almost photographic, when asked during the trial to provide a description of Bernal — a neighbor she had seen several times while he mowed his lawn — she was unable to say what he looked like, according to the appeal. Even Baxter thought the prosecution’s star witness had credibility problems. According to Hargrave-Thomas’ appeal, the judge described Brown as “evasive” on numerous occasions during the trial.
Police did not know of Brown until nearly seven months after the murder. They learned about her from Joe’s family, who were told by neighbors that Brown claimed to have seen the killer.
Nowaczck visited Brown three times at home, showed her beauty magazines featuring frosted hairstyles, and then finished up by having her identify the woman she saw from a photo lineup of six women, according to police records. In the appeal, Lyon described the procedure used by Nowaczk as “highly suspect and unusual,” arguing that his tactics “all but ensured that Ms. Brown would pick Ms. Hargrave-Thomas from the photo line-up …”
For Baxter, however, Brown proved to be a crucial witness.
“I finally came to believe the testimony of the witness, whose name I can’t recall … (it) was pivotal for me,” Baxter said as she sent Hargrave-Thomas to prison for life.
Fingered by a nail
Aside from Brown’s testimony, the other key piece of the prosecution’s case was the broken artificial fingernail police found in Hargrave-Thomas’ trash.
Police contended that a half-inch scratch next to Bernal’s stab wound was caused by the nail, which they said contained a suspicious indentation.
Detective Nowaczck leaned heavily on that theory, testifying that Hargrave-Thomas broke the nail the night of the murder. However, he couldn’t satisfactorily explain how she actually broke it. And he did not explain what caused the indentation. Neither was there any evidence such as blood or skin tissue tying the nail to the scratch on Bernal’s chest.
Furthermore, the medical examiner testified that he didn’t believe the fingernail caused the scratch. And while the prosecution argued in court that Kylleen created a gouge in her nail when she stabbed Joe, the police failed to reveal a forensic report that identified the indentation as a manufacturer’s defect.
But none of that stopped the prosecution from making the broken nail a focal point of its case. According to court documents, the prosecutor referred to the broken nail 31 times during the trial.
In the end, Baxter said part of the reason she came to believe Hargrave-Thomas was guilty was because she tried so hard to explain to the police how she must have broken it getting into her car on Oct. 10 as she left her therapist’s office. Her counselor confirmed that Kylleen had been to her office that day, and told police she thought “they were barking up the wrong tree,” according to Nowaczck’s notes.
And that, in essence, sums up the state’s case against Kylleen Hargrave-Thomas.
“If that’s the only evidence, it’s a sad comment on the courts in this state that this case could result in a conviction,” University of Michigan law professor Samuel Gross said.
Seeking a conviction based only on circumstantial evidence, prosecutor Reynolds leaned heavily on rhetoric to make his case, even turning to a fictional detective for help. “All of the witnesses have little points to make,” Reynolds told Judge Baxter, “and when they come back, the comeback to this last question here, which is, if it’s not Kylleen Hargrave-Thomas, then who is it that did it? It reminds me of the line in Sherlock Holmes where it says, ‘When you eliminate the possible, the remainder, no matter how improbable, must be true.’ In this case, I think we’ve shown that she’s the one that did it.”
Reynolds continued to pound the point home, according to the appeal.
“If it’s not Kylleen Hargrave-Thomas,” asked Reynolds, “then who is it that did it?”
There was, of course, no one else to point to.
Or was there?
Andrea Lyon is a tough, savvy lawyer who has heard it all. A former public defender in Illinois before becoming a clinical professor working to free those she believes have been wrongfully convicted, she moved last year from the University of Michigan to become the director of a capital crimes law clinic at DePaul University in Chicago.
While still in Ann Arbor, Lyon enlisted the help of University of Michigan law students to reinvestigate Kylleen’s case.
She agreed to look at the case after being contacted by a church group whose members knew Kylleen’s family.
From the outside, said Lyon, who has tried 131 murder cases, the case looked thin. But once she met Kylleen, she said, she knew she was innocent.
“If she’d done it, she would have called the police and said so,” Lyon said. “I’m human just like anyone else, I could be wrong. But I have never seen evidence this thin in my life. This is so thin as to be transparent.”
There are multiple reasons to grant Hargrave-Thomas a new trial, argued Lyon, not the least of which is that the prosecution’s case simply did not establish proof of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
“The prosecution’s case against Ms. Hargrave-Thomas was completely circumstantial,” argued Lyon in the appeal, “requiring the court to pile inference upon inference to find guilt. The prosecution never established any physical evidence linking Ms. Hargrave-Thomas to the crime, did not elicit a confession from her, could summon no eyewitnesses to implicate her, and failed to discredit any of her statements with contradictory evidence.
“The only evidence established against Ms. Hargrave-Thomas was that her boyfriend, Joe Bernal, was killed, that she was his girlfriend at the time of the murder, that she has a garage door opener to his garage, and that a witness who came forward fully six and a half months after the murder claimed to have seen a woman resembling Ms. Hargrave-Thomas driving around the victim’s subdivision the morning after Joe Bernal was killed.”
The defense just rested
A judge willing to convict on purely circumstantial evidence was only part of the problem faced by Hargrave-Thomas, according to Lyon. The accused also relied on an attorney who, according to the appeal, failed to put up any sort of “meaningful” fight on behalf of his client.
Technically, at least, Kylleen Hargrave-Thomas was represented by legal counsel. But as her appeal alleges, she was virtually alone when standing trial.
According to Lyon, Hargrave-Thomas’ attorney failed to perform “the most basic responsibilities required by a defense attorney.”
Among other things, Lyon contends, Hargrave-Thomas’ attorney “never interviewed any witnesses.” Not a single witness was called to the stand in her defense.
Among those who would have testified on her behalf was a co-worker who subsequently signed an affidavit saying Joe had proposed to Kylleen, undermining the prosecution’s “theory” that she killed him in a fit of rage after he refused to marry her.
There was also her son’s guidance counselor, who, according to another affidavit, would have testified that she displayed no unusual behavior when they met at 7:30 the morning of Joe’s murder.
Her sons would have testified that she was at home at 6:15 the morning of the murder, when she woke them for school, and that they, too, saw nothing unusual in her behavior.
There were other factors that weren’t revealed. According to Lyon, she discovered seven pieces of critical evidence damaging to the prosecution’s case that were never provided to the defense attorney. For example, Judge Baxter never heard that, although Bernal’s bedclothes were “soaked” in blood, microscopic forensic examinations of Hargrave-Thomas’s shoes and car interior could find no trace of blood.
“Presenting some kind of defense, especially in light of the circumstantial nature of the prosecution, would have created a reasonable probability that there would have been reasonable doubt regarding Ms. Hargrave-Thomas’ guilt,” argued Lyon. “Instead, she could only sit and watch her freedom slip away as her trial counsel did nothing to defend her.”
Perhaps most damaging of all was the failure to offer up other suspects that would have countered Reynolds’ “Sherlock Holmes” argument and opened the door to other possibilities.
According to the appeal, there are several people other than Hargrave-Thomas that investigators could have suspected. Among the people police contacted on the day of the murder was Joe’s ex-wife Dianne and her new husband, Randy Williams. Dianne had worked with Kylleen at the same dentist’s office; Randy, a Rouge co-worker of Joe’s, lived next to Joe when he began having an affair with Dianne, according to a police report.
On the day of the murder, police found a postcard the couple had sent Joe on the counter next to the wooden block that had held the knife used to kill him. The postcard depicted a car with a “Just Married” sign attached to the rear bumper. In the card’s message area were the words: “Thought you’d like to know.”
“It was a mocking kind of thing,” said Lyon, “but what was important was the placement near the knives.”
That postcard, according to the appeal, was one of seven pieces of possibly exculpatory evidence never turned over to defense attorneys.
When police interviewed Dianne and Randy Williams the day of the murder, they were asked if they knew of any enemies Bernal may have had. Dianne, according to a police report, replied that “the only enemies she could think of were herself and her present husband.”
Despite that admission, “Police never interviewed them again, never made any determination regarding alibi and never followed up with them in any way,” according to the appeal.
There is also the possibility Joe Bernal was involved in the drug trade. There was the heroin habit he’d battled for so long. He told Kylleen he’d been clean since January 1991. And he participated in methadone therapy and a counseling program. Police found an empty bottle of methadone with Bernal’s name on it in the back seat of his car following the murder. They also found a bottle of the pain reliever Darvocet in the glove box of his car.
There was also a white, powdery substance in a baggie in Joe’s room. Although tests concluded it wasn’t drugs, it could have been used as “cutting material.” The existence of that material, however, was never disclosed to Kylleen’s lawyer, according to the appeal.
A neighbor provided an affidavit stating he observed on several occasions people coming and going from Bernal’s garage in the middle of the night.
“These people would huddle in the dimly lit garage, trying not to be seen, in what appeared to be a sale of drugs,” observed the neighbor.
“… [T]he evidence suggesting that Manuel Bernal was involved in drug activity exponentially increases the number of persons with a potential motive and opportunity to harm him,” asserted Lyon in the appeal. As if that weren’t enough, there was at least one more potential suspect, a former live-in boyfriend of Kylleen’s named Bob Stone.
“Scared to death”
When Kylleen Hargrave-Thomas says she had a history of hooking up with the wrong guy, Bob Stone could well be at the top of the list.
According to Hargrave-Thomas, she met Stone in December 1989 at Station 885. According to an affidavit in the court file, Stone initially told her that he was a police officer on medical leave receiving treatment for a brain tumor.
She eventually discovered there was no cancer, and that he was no longer a cop, so she ended the relationship.
According to the South Lyon Police Department, Stone at one point was employed as a part-time reserve officer, but was fired for not attending enough meetings. He was also reprimanded for allegedly impersonating an officer following his dismissal, according to a Sept. 20, 1990 letter to Stone from South Lyon Police Chief Gerald Smith.
Stone, according to Kylleen, did not easily accept their breakup.
“Bob Stone was known to have been stalking Ms. Hargrave-Thomas at the time of the murder,” according to the appeal. Deborah Smulsky, a co-worker of Hargrave-Thomas, signed an affidavit stating that Kylleen “was scared to death of Bob Stone because he was watching and following her.”
Hargrave-Thomas allegedly told Smulsky that after they stopped dating, she suspected that Stone put sugar in Hargrave-Thomas’ gas tank, according to the appeal.
Hargrave-Thomas’ sons produced affidavits stating that they “were aware that Bob Stone was stalking their mother and that she was terrified of him.” One son, Nathan, stated that “two or three weeks after his mother began dating (Bernal),” Stone phoned and said he knew Kylleen “had a new boyfriend and that his name was Joe.”
Stone, in an interview conducted last year, denied all the allegations.
Police reports provided to the defense indicate Stone received one phone call and was interviewed once by Detective Nowaczck.
Stone, however, told attorney Lyon that he was interviewed several times by Westland police. He also told Lyon that he underwent a polygraph test administered by Michigan State Police. According to Stone, he passed the test. By his own admission, he was under the influence of painkillers when the test was administered.
“There is no mention of Mr. Stone’s polygraph examination in the police reports which were turned over to the defense,” wrote Lyon in the appeal.
Stone, according to an affidavit in the court file, raised doubts about another of Kylleen’s ex-boyfriends. Kylleen, in an interview, said she didn’t consider that man a suspect. He declined to speak on the record about the case.
The missing witness
Just as Stone’s lie detector examination never showed up in material provided defense, authorities also failed to disclose statements an eyewitness allegedly made to police the morning of the murder.
According to an affidavit signed by a Detroit Free Press deliveryman named Wesley Sibu, he saw a man wearing what appeared to be a police uniform standing outside Bernal’s home at about 4:30 the morning of the fire. Sibu, now 74, stated that Bernal’s garage door was about three-quarters of the way open, which was unusual. Sibu reportedly asked the man what was going on and was told “there had been a little fire.” This was nearly three hours before neighbors reported the blaze. Sibu said he saw no other police officers or firefighters, and did not see any squad cars or fire trucks in front of the home, although he may have noticed a police car farther up the block.
Sibu returned to the home around 9 a.m. and, according to his affidavit, told a detective what he’d seen earlier.
“There is no mention of Mr. Sibu’s statement in the police report,” according to the appeal.
Police noted that they talked to Sibu, but the report said he didn’t see anything unusual. He did testify briefly at Kylleen’s preliminary exam and mentioned the out-of-place officer, but neither the prosecution nor defense called him at trial. Lyon at least infers that the man Sibu saw could have been Stone by pointing out in the appeal that “Bob Stone was known to have impersonated a police officer.”
Stone denied ever impersonating an officer, and added that anyone can purchase police uniforms and badges from catalogs or over the Internet.
As for the apparently expert technique used in stabbing Bernal, Stone said in an interview that it’s something you can read in a book. He knows the technique, he said, but couldn’t have done it because he was laid up with a back and shoulder injury and on painkillers the night of the murder.
Although the appeal raises questions about Stone, he nonetheless maintains Hargrave-Thomas is innocent. For one thing, he said, she just would never have been able to kill someone. And, he said, she wouldn’t have had the strength or skill to stab him so precisely.
For his part, Sgt. Nowaczck appears to never have considered Stone as a prime suspect. In a sworn affidavit one of Kylleen’s neighbors, Donald Mullett, relates having a conversation with the detective about a year after the murder. According to his affidavit, Mullett asked Nowaczck about Stone and was told “Bob Stone was never really a suspect.”
Mullett wasn’t the only neighbor who wondered about Stone. At least two other neighbors had signed affidavits saying they immediately thought of Stone when first informed of Bernal’s murder. They knew Stone from his having briefly lived with Hargrave-Thomas, and thought him “odd.”
Mullett also asked Nowaczck why no one from the Police Department had spoken to him or any other neighbors during the murder investigation. “Officer Nowaczck told me that the investigation of the death of Manuel Joe Bernal was an open-and-shut case,” according to the affidavit.
Awaiting a decision
Kylleen Hargrave-Thomas’ case is now before U.S. District Court Judge Paul Gadola.
“We have a decent chance to win,” Lyon said, “because this is a case of actual innocence.”
If Gadola doesn’t grant Hargrave-Thomas a hearing, Lyon said, she technically has more options. She could take the case to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals and then to the U.S. Supreme Court, Lyon said.
But realistically, the District Court is the one hopes for a new trial hinge upon. “If we don’t win here, odds are we never will,” Lyon said.
While the wheels of justice make their slow grind, Hargrave-Thomas spends her days at Scott Correctional Facility, making dentures for other prisoners and working toward a bachelor’s degree in psychology.
The nine years behind bars have changed her. The woman who used to be the life of the party, the practical joker who could be flighty at times, is described by her family as much more somber these days.
Now 48, she shares an 8 foot-by-12 foot cell with another inmate and sleeps on a 2-inch-thick mattress.
She’s missed watching her two boys grow from adolescence to manhood, missed their high-school graduations and the birth of her first grandchild.
What she dreams of most, she says, is rejoining her family for summer vacations at her parent’s cabin on a small lake in Canada.
And she lives in the hope that her appeal will eventually lead to the granting of a new trial.
“Joe didn’t get justice, his mother didn’t get justice, the community didn’t get justice,” Hargrave-Thomas told a reporter by phone from prison last year. “There’s a killer running around out there, but everyone feels safe because they’ve put someone in prison for the murder.”
Editor’s note: Katie Merx and another reporter first investigated Kylleen Hargrave-Thomas’ conviction for a story that ran in the Detroit News. In January, the Metro Times assigned Merx, who now works for another publication, to resume her investigation and produce this in-depth examination of the case, which brings to light previously undisclosed facts.
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