LANSING, Mich. — A Michigan man who spent nearly five years in prison for a murder he did not commit has filed a lawsuit against Hertz, which for years failed to provide a receipt that exonerated him of the crime, court documents show.
Herbert Maurice Alford, 47, of Detroit, was convicted in 2016 of second-degree murder in the October 2011 shooting death of Michael Adams in a Lansing parking lot.
The lawsuit alleges that Hertz ignored two subpoenas and three court orders seeking the receipt, which shows that Alford was nowhere near Adams, 23, when he was shot in the back. Authorities alleged that Alford killed Adams over 50 pounds of stolen marijuana, according to the Lansing State Journal.
An appeals court overturned Alford’s conviction in 2018, but he remained behind bars until last year, when he was granted bond. Prosecutors ultimately decided against retrying him for the crime.
Ingham County Prosecuting Attorney Carol Siemon told the Journal prosecutors no longer believed they could prove Alford’s guilt by the “beyond a reasonable doubt standard,” the newspaper reported in December.
Alford said after the charges were dropped that he would never forgive Hertz officials for what they had done.
“Almost five years of my life is gone, from either sitting in jail waiting for trial or sitting in prison after the first trial,” Alford said.
Alford’s attorney, Jamie White, said in a statement this week that “not even billions of dollars” are a fair trade for five years of a person’s life, or for that person’s good name.
“Hertz Corporation has a fully staffed legal department, so there is absolutely no reason for the company to completely ignore subpoenas and court orders for years while an innocent man languished in prison,” White said, according to the newspaper.
Alford, then 38, became a suspect in Adams’ killing early in the case, with a warrant for his arrest issued three days after Adams was slain, court records show. Alford remained at large until 2015, when he was booked on the murder charge and two felony weapons charges.
There was one problem, according to Alford’s attorneys: When Adams was gunned down, Alford was eight miles away at the Capital Region International Airport, renting a car from the airport’s Hertz counter.
Police officials said that Adams was killed at 2:54 p.m. that day, according to court records.
A receipt from Hertz, which is included in court documents, shows that Alford used his credit card to pay for his rental six minutes later.
Google Maps shows that the quickest route from the crime scene to the airport would take 17 minutes to drive, not accounting for traffic.
There was no way Alford could have shot Adams, driven to the airport and rented a car in six minutes, his attorneys argue.
“If anybody has ever traveled Lansing, from Pleasant Grove to the airport, you know that is not possible to accomplish. You couldn’t even do it in a helicopter,” White told WLNS in Lansing.
It was, unfortunately, an argument the defense could not prove at Alford’s 2016 trial.
Killed in broad daylight
The case began the afternoon of Oct. 18, 2011, when Adams was shot once in the back, the bullet piercing his heart. According to the National Registry of Exonerations, witnesses to the killing, which took place in the lot of a strip mall, offered little help.
One witness gave police a slip of paper with a license plate number for a green 2002 Dodge Durango the gunman allegedly got into after the shooting. The tag number was registered to Willine Pentecost, with whom Alford had been living.
At the hospital where Adams was pronounced dead, his mother told authorities she believed a man named “Herb” may have killed her son. Meanwhile, the registry states, a police informant identified Alford as the man he saw kill Adams.
The informant later denied witnessing the shooting and claimed that police paid him to implicate Alford, but Alford’s photo was released to the public as he was named a suspect in the homicide. The Durango was later found abandoned in a Lansing parking lot.
The case remained open until 2015, when Pentecost’s son was arrested on drug charges. According to the registry, he traded Alford’s whereabouts for a deal in his drug case.
Alford was arrested May 26, 2015, and charged with Adams’ murder.
The first subpoena for Alford’s rental records was issued June 30, 2015, just over a month after his arrest. Hertz did not respond, and it failed to produce any of the documents sought, according to court documents.
Alford’s attorneys attempted to coordinate with Hertz representatives to secure the evidence they needed.
“The defendants continuously stonewalled their attempts to procure the documents that would eventually exonerate Mr. Alford,” White states in the lawsuit.
A second subpoena was issued Jan. 20, 2016, and the following day, it was personally served on Judi Schuett, identified as Hertz’s resident agent for Michigan. Schuett has been named as a defendant in the lawsuit.
Once again, Hertz failed to produce the documentation sought. After multiple court orders to produce the documents went unanswered, Ingham County Circuit Court Judge Clinton Canady III held Hertz and Schuett in contempt of court.
Meanwhile, Alford’s murder trial began on Dec. 5, 2016.
‘A full and fair defense’
According to the National Registry of Exonerations, there was no physical or forensic evidence tying Alford to Adams’ murder.
“A Michigan State police crime lab analyst testified that one swab from the Durango was tested. Three DNA profiles were isolated, one of which was Alford’s,” the registry states.
Alford’s attorneys argued that the test results were meaningless because Alford, who was in a relationship with Pentecost, regularly drove her vehicle.
Prosecutors later claimed — though not at the 2016 trial — that Alford’s cellphone records indicated his phone pinged off cell towers near the shooting scene at 2:29 p.m. that day. The records showed that he headed toward the airport, pinging off towers along the way.
“Had (Alford) been at Hertz at 3:06 or 3:07 p.m., that would have been sufficient time to travel from the location of the shooting to Hertz at the Lansing airport,” the prosecution said in a motion.
It was unclear why the cellphone records were not introduced as evidence in Alford’s trial.
Read Alford’s lawsuit against Hertz below.
The defense attempted to cast doubt on the few witnesses who cooperated with police. One witness, who admitted he’d been freebasing crack cocaine since 2 a.m. the day of the shooting, was unable to identify Alford from a photo lineup.
A second witness gave information against Alford only after police approached her, the defense said.
She was also way off on the time frame of the shooting, White said. Though it had been less than two weeks since Adams was slain, she thought two years had passed, according to the Journal.
The lack of records from Hertz was a huge blow to Alford’s defense, his lawyers argue.
“Mr. Alford was denied his ability to present a full and fair defense at trial, as he did not have access to the Hertz records that proved his alibi defense and his innocence,” his lawsuit states.
Following a six-day trial, Alford was found guilty. In January 2017, Canady sentenced him to serve between 30 and 60 years in prison.
“Had his conviction not been overturned, he would have been at least 73 years old before being eligible to be considered for parole,” the lawsuit says.
Alford’s appellate attorneys began the appeal process — and continued to pursue documentation from Hertz. In March 2018, a Hertz legal representative wrote back, saying that a search for the documents had been fruitless and that the information had likely been purged because of its age.
Lawyers demanded that the representative appear at a hearing on Alford’s motion for a new trial.
Days before the hearing, the long-sought-after documentation was sent to prosecutors and forwarded to Alford’s attorneys.
“Hertz was in possession of the exculpatory documents during the entire pendency of Mr. Alford’s criminal case and failed or refused to produce them, in violation of numerous court orders,” the lawsuit states.
Based on the receipt included in those records, Canady granted Alford a new trial. The judge called the 2016 guilty verdict a “miscarriage of justice.”
“This court finds that the new evidence makes a different result probable on retrial because it could have significantly aided (Alford) in refuting the prosecution’s contention that (he) was the man who chased and gunned down the victim,” Canady declared, according to the exoneration registry. “The newly discovered evidence could serve to create new suspects, could serve to impeach witnesses’ testimony, and render all the other evidence less than enough to convict beyond a reasonable doubt.”
The cellphone records presented during the appeals by prosecutors were an issue for a jury to ponder at a new trial, the judge ruled.
A new trial never took place.
Alford’s lawsuit accuses Hertz officials of civil contempt, negligence and conspiracy to deprive him of his civil rights.
“There is no question that he would have avoided going to prison had they produced this documentation,” White told WLNS.
A Hertz spokesperson on Wednesday told The Associated Press that company officials are “deeply saddened” by what happened to Alford.
“While we were unable to find the historic rental record from 2011 when it was requested in 2015, we continued our good faith efforts to locate it,” spokeswoman Lauren Luster said. “With advances in data search in the years following, we were able to locate the rental record in 2018 and promptly provided it.”
White told WLNS that he does not understand how it took years to find Alford’s records.
“I think they looked at his situation, saw that there was a man, an African American man, charged with murder and this just wasn’t worthy of their time,” White said.