Oct. 14—FERRYSBURG — When Charles Freeman asked his eighth-graders at Walden Green Montessori School to investigate an ongoing culture war back in 2018, it took him by surprise when three of his students chose to lead a charge in freeing a wrongfully convicted Detroit man.
But that's exactly what happened when Katelyn Byrnes, Simone Dennison and Chloe Westendorf discovered an article written by an inmate, Lacino Hamilton, titled: "I've Been in Prison for 24 Years and I Feel Dead." Their efforts eventually led to Hamilton being released from jail.
Three years after their initial connection was formed, Hamilton visited the students at the Ferrysburg school on Oct. 7.
Hamilton became a suspect after the murder of his foster mother, Willa Bias, in the summer of 1994. The false testimony of a "jailhouse snitch" said that Hamilton had admitted the slaying, according to Hamilton's lawyers. That man had allegedly made claims against "numerous others" to get leniency for his own criminal conduct.
The lack of DNA testing in Hamilton's case was a large factor in his sentencing, which had not yet become widely used in solving crimes.
Hamilton was sentenced in January 1996 to 50-80 years behind bars for second-degree murder and felony firearm charges. He appealed to both the Michigan Court of Appeals and the Michigan Supreme Court to have his conviction overturned, but was unsuccessful.
Fortunately, one of his 5,000 letters pleading for help found interest in Freeman's students, who became invigorated after reading of Hamilton's wrongful conviction.
"From my layman's teacher perspective, as I watched these three, they became very different students," Freeman said. "They were quiet, timid, shy and reserved before all this."
But as Hamilton and the students connected through various letters, a connection and momentum for justice was born.
"I'll never forget that first letter he sent back saying that you guys have no idea what you have provided me," Freeman said. "This was a cry for help and it was answered. It was deeply needed in that moment to give him some semblance of feeling hope, and it was tangible in that letter."
After bringing it to the attention of Walden Green Principal Mark Roessing, the students then spoke in front of lawyers, a state representative and civil rights activists at a meeting on May 9, 2019, in Muskegon.
The enthusiasm generated by this presentation eventually led to the re-examination of witness testimonies across multiple cases by state attorneys, yielding several reduced sentences and exonerations. Lacino was one of those fortunate inmates, and he walked free on Sept. 30, 2020.
Claudia Whitman of the National Capital Assistance Network, along with assistance from the Western Michigan University-Cooley Law School Innocence Clinic and Hamilton's defense attorneys, helped spearhead a further review of the case and testing of DNA material scraped from under Bias' fingernails.
With the new DNA results, which had not been previously tested by the Detroit Police Department, along with the improper use of informants, the students and all other parties helped free Hamilton after 26 years.
"I would have never gave up, and I say that because I felt like I had truth on my side," Hamilton told the students. "I felt like if I had the truth from my side, it was eventually going to come out. That's my bigger message — is to hold onto whatever truth you got."
The Walden Green students came away with a changed perspective, not only in criminal justice, but a desire to help others in need.
"Especially speaking to him, it just shows how flawed our criminal justice system is," Byrnes said. "There's 66 more people that should be freed and haven't gotten any accountability at all. So that inspired me to just do something and speak up for when something is wrong."
"The fact that he was inspired by eighth-graders — like how old were we, 13?" Dennison added. "To show that we did something about it is really inspiring."
Hamilton said that he is thankful that the students put faith into his case, knowing that he was a complete stranger to them.
"Some of my own family and friends didn't believe in me," he said. "Imagine your own parents believing in someone they didn't even know. People have abandoned me — I'm just being honest with you. That has an effect on my life right now."
At Walden Green, it's in their belief as a school to find ways to say yes to students in situations like this, Freeman said.
"There's nothing I've done in my career that's touched this," the teacher said. "I'm not taking any credit from this. All I did was assign something and watch these three run with it."
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