An African American man who was wrongly convicted of a fatal shooting in Michiganin 2011 is suing a car rental company for taking seven-years to turn over the receipt that proved his innocence, claiming that they treated him like “a poor black guy wasn’t worth their time”.
At 3pm on October 18, 2011, Herbert Alford, then a 38-year-old labourer, used his credit card at Hertz in Lansing Airport, in the city of Lansing, outside of Detroit.
Six minutes earlier, at 2:54pm, Michael Adams, 23, was shot and killed as he ran through the car park of a mall that was a 19-26-minute journey by car, dependent on traffic.
But after Hertz refused to hand over the crucial, time-stamped receipt, Mr Alford was convicted of second degree murder in 2016 and sentenced to up to 60-years.
It wasn’t until 2018, seven-years after the shooting, two-years after the trial and following multiple legal orders from lawyers and judges, that Hertz finally released the document that proved his alibi.
Mr Alford’s conviction was overturned in December 2020, after spending nearly 5-years behind bars. He filed a lawsuit against Hertz yesterday.
His lawyer, Jamie White, told The Independent that they believed that “racial bias” played a factor in the lengthy delay and accused the corporate giant, currently in bankruptcy re-organisation, of behaving like “a poor black guy wasn’t worth their time.”
White said that the suit was not just about compensation for Mr Alford but also a “warning shot” to all corporate giants to comply with legal orders and to not “play with people’s lives”.
The attorney said: “We filed order after order begging them for this receipt. I had a judge order them to appear in court, and nothing. Crickets. Not even a phone call. When they finally replied they said they were prevented from finding the receipt because of ‘technology’. Did technology stop you from picking up the phone and calling me? They were held in contempt of court but by then it was too late, and the trial went ahead.”
He added that had the evidence been produced in time for the trial that Mr Alford would have been exonerated because the journey between the site of the shooting and airport couldn’t even be done “by helicopter” in six-minutes.
“This was a man’s life at stake,” he said. “It is very hard to believe, given that Mr Alford was a poor black guy from Michigan accused of murder, that race didn’t play a factor here. He wasn’t worthy of their time.”
Mr Alford has been “traumatised” by his wrongful conviction, said Mr White, and was living with his mother and undergoing therapy.
“Imagine, he was just a guy who rented a car. Then he was jailed for the rest of his life for murder in a maximum security prison. That trauma dosn’t go away overnight.”
Mr White added: “We want this case to be a warning shot to other businesses and corporate companies. He was their customer. We just wanted a receipt, he spent money with these people. Their response is unthinkable. Part of the goal of the lawsuit is the next time a business comes into our community, or any community, and finds themselves facing court orders that they don’t blow it off as ‘just another black guy’ that they don’t have time to deal with.”
In 2011, following the shooting of Adams, whose background and convictions were inadmissible in court due to his age, the victim’s mother told police that she suspected it was a “black man with braids” called ‘Herb’.
A police informant Jessie Bridges later claimed he had seen Mr Alford carry out the shooting, but subsequently withdrew his testimony and said that he had been offered $1,500 by local police to name him, something that police deny.
A car suspected of being involved in the shooting was later found to be registered to Mr Alford’s partner, Willine Pentecost, but DNA evidence was thrown out because he regularly drove her vehicle.
Then in May 2015, Pentecost’s son, Gilbert Bailey, was arrested on drugs offences and as part of a plea deal to drop four federal charges agreed to testify against Alford as a suspect, leading to his arrest, as reported by The National Registry of Exonerations.
He later admitted in court that he did not like Alford and suspected him of having an affair with his aunt, his mother’s sister.
Mr White said that Mr Alford always maintained his innocence and had asked police in 2015 to find the Hertz receipt, but that the legal team did not know why this line of inquiry wasn’t followed up by law enforcement.
In December last year, Ingham County Prosecuting Attorney Carol Siemon told the Lansing State Journal: “We do not believe that we can prove Mr. Alford’s legal culpability by the ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ standard. Therefore, the Ingham County Prosecutor’s Office is dismissing the case against Herbert Alford.”
In a statement to the New York Daily News, Hertz denied the delay was racially motivated and said: “The characterizations that are being alleged are simply untrue. Most egregious is any claim that race or social economic status had any bearing on our response or its timeliness. We take all requests for information pertaining to legal cases seriously. Furthermore, Hertz never solicits information about someone’s race or ethnicity.”
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies