Testimony of Harry Laity.
Testimony of Frances Laity.
The closing arguments, verdict and sentence.
Floyd Caldwell and Berrien County.
It pays to be white.
What can you do to help?
In 1975 and 1976, while the rest of us were going about our everyday lives, Floyd Caldwell was viciously attacked by a racist justice system, wrongly convicted, and thrown into prison for life.
At about 10:30 p.m. on May 30, 1975, two men surprised Harry and Frances Laity in their garage in Benton Harbor, Michigan, after they returned from a night on the town. One attacker displaying a butcher knife came to Harry's side of the car, and threatened to kill them if they did not turn over money. He struck Harry in the chest while holding the knife, but did not break the skin. The second attacker, at the other side of the car, had his hand over Mrs. Laity's mouth.
The attackers took a $20 bill and several $1 bills. They also took jewelry: a watch, 2 bracelets, and 3 rings.
On June 10, 1975, Floyd Caldwell walked into a pawn shop with a ring. When the ring turned out to have been stolen from the Laity's, Floyd was arrested and charged with the robbery. His statement that he found the ring while mowing the lawn was ignored.
Floyd Caldwell had three strikes going against him. First, he was a black man. Second, he had a criminal record. Third was something Floyd did not know about at the time. Harry Laity had been a District Judge in Berrien County for years, and had recently retired.
Floyd Caldwell was convinced by his attorney into waiving the right to a jury trial and taking a bench trial (where the judge decides guilt or innocence). Believing that he could get justice, he agreed. After the opening statements of the prosecutor and his lawyer, Judge Chester Byrns made an announcement that began to open the eyes of Floyd Caldwell. Floyd learned to his dismay that Judge Byrns had known Harry and Frances Laity for 23 years. One would think that Judge Byrns, upon learning his colleague of many years was the victim, would disqualify himself from the case. After all, how could he disappoint his friend by not convicting the person he wanted convicted? But, Judge Byrns announced his decades-long association with Judge Laity and his wife would "cut no ice one way or the other." So, on December 3, 1975, the trial went forward.
Testimony of Harry Laity.
Referring to his attacker, Harry Laity testified that "I don't know that I would say I had a good look, but I saw him." He noticed no particular details about the man, other than a scar on the forehead. Nevertheless, he was certain that the man sitting in the Defendant's chair was the man who attacked him.
Harry attended 2 lineups on June 12. In the first lineup, he picked man #3 as being his attacker. Later, at Floyd Caldwell's preliminary examination, Harry testified that man #3 from the first lineup was his attacker. There was just one problem. As the police and prosecutor conceded, Floyd Caldwell was not even in the first lineup. The man Harry picked out of the lineup was Arthur Wilkins. Yet, Harry swore under oath he was certain that the man he picked out of the lineup was the guilty man, and that the man he picked out of the lineup was Floyd Caldwell.
One would think that Harry's positive identification of Floyd as being in a lineup that police say Floyd was not in would cause someone to doubt his ability to correctly identify his attacker. As we shall see, it had no such effect on Judge Byrns.
Harry attended a second lineup on June 12. He clearly stated that man #3 of the second lineup could not have been the robber. The man in the lineup had a long growth of beard, far too long for him to have been the clean-shaven robber 13 days earlier. Who was the man whom Harry, at the second lineup, was certain could not have been the robber? According to the police and prosecutor, it was Floyd Caldwell. Although police are supposed to maintain photos of their lineups, the photo of this lineup has mysteriously disappeared. The prosecutor had a phony photo for use at trial with a different date on it, and in which no one had a beard.
What about the scar on the forehead that Harry told the police and the court he noticed on his attacker? He looked closely at Floyd in the courtroom, and then Harry said that Floyd Caldwell, the man on trial, did not have a scar on his forehead. However, Harry did say that perhaps he was mistaken about the attacker having a scar, and that perhaps what he actually saw was a shadow from the man's hair.
Harry mentioned that he was basing his identification in part upon looking at Floyd Caldwell for some time during the preliminary examination, and during the day of trial.
Testimony of Frances Laity.
After Harry left the stand, his wife Frances testified that she, too, was certain that the man sitting in the Defendant's chair was the assailant who went to Harry's side of the car. However, she also picked Arthur Wilkins out of the first lineup as being the attacker.
One would think that saying one day that Arthur Wilkins did it, and saying another day that Floyd Caldwell did it, would cause someone interested in the truth to question whether her identification of Floyd Caldwell was reliable and accurate. But that did not happen.
Mrs. Laity admitted on the witness stand that she told police the man had a scar on his forehead, and that Floyd Caldwell did not have a scar on his forehead. However, she did say that, upon looking at him closely in the courtroom, she could make out a "slight mark."
At the preliminary examination, Frances admitted that she saw Harry's attacker only from the corner of her eye, through the car, while being attacked by another man. She admitted that she never saw the man's whole face. She also admitted, at the trial, that Harry had turned off the car headlights before they saw either man.
Frances testified that she was a student of the head shapes of different races. She testified that the black man who robbed them had a "dolichocephalic" head, that is, one where the length is greater than the width. Normally, she said, Europeans are the ones with dolichocephalic heads, while blacks normally have "brachycephalic" heads. The dolichocephalic head on a black man was unusual, and helped her to identify Floyd as the robber. Presumably, it also helped her at the lineup to identify Arthur Wilkins as the robber.
The rest of the testimony.
Interestingly enough, nobody noticed anything unusual about Harry's attacker other than the scar on the foreheard (which Floyd did not have) and the "dolichocephalic head." This was interesting, because Floyd Caldwell was missing two fingers from his left hand. One would think that such a feature would attract some attention, in that the robber was seen both holding a knife and emptying money from a wallet, activities which normally require the use of hands.
Also of interest is that several items of jewelry were stolen during the robbery, yet, Floyd Caldwell did not have those other items of jewelry.
Floyd Caldwell testified that he was employed, got a regular paycheck, and had also just gotten a large income tax refund check back from the Government. He testified he found the ring while mowing the lawn. He admitted bringing the ring to the pawnshop, but insisted he was innocent of the crime and had not had anything to do with attacking the Laity's. The prosecutor made him admit that he did have a previous criminal record.
The closing arguments, verdict, and sentence.
The closing arguments came. The prosecutor, Scott Beatty, made the following comments:
"Your honor, if there is an acquittal in this case, the only way that an acquittal could result would be if this court were to disbelieve the testimony of both Harry Laity and Frances Laity. We would submit to you that the testimony of Frances Laity and her eyewitness is rock solid in that the identification by Judge -- by Harry Laity is very strong and very corroborative. In judging the credibility, the court has, of course, before it the prior convictions of Floyd Caldwell."
The time came for the trial judge, Judge Chester Byrns, to make his findings of fact and issue his verdict. Of course, he was in no mood to "disbelieve the testimony of both Harry Laity and Frances Laity," his friends and his colleague for so many years. What happened in the lineups was brushed away by him as insignificant:
"The line-up or line-ups were conducted not in the quiet dignity and visibility of the courtroom where full opportunity to observe the defendant calmly, cooly and directly over a considerable length of time is offered. As Mr. Laity testified, the line-up observances in the first one, as I remember, was through a one-way mirror in the jail house and identification was quickly made."
So, a police-conducted lineup is without value toward determining who did it, because it happens so quickly. What counts is when the Defendant is singled out, the only black man in the courtroom, and they get to stare at him all day until his image, and his alone, is burned into their heads. That is what counts. The "quiet dignity and visibility of the courtroom."
What about the forehead scar Caldwell did not have? What about the missing fingers? What about the fact that Mrs. Laity saw him only for a moment, through a car, while being attacked by another man? Not mentioned by Judge Byrns. What about the fact that Floyd Caldwell did not have the other stolen jewelry? Not mentioned by Judge Byrns.
What about the positive identification at the lineup of Arthur Wilkins by both Mr. and Mrs. Laity? The judge refers to this first lineup situation as "Mr. Laity was not able to identify the defendant in a positive fashion." What about Mr. Laity's clear statement at the second lineup that man #3 (admitted by police and prosecutor to have been Floyd Caldwell) could not have been the robber? The judge refers to this second lineup situation as "Mr. Laity did make a somewhat tentative identification of the defendant but didn't think, though, at the time that it was the defendant."
What about Judge Byrns' 23 year acquaintance with the Laity's? The one that would "cut no ice one way or the other"? Judge Byrns found Mrs. Laity "obviously a very intelligent and observant witness." Gee, no kidding. And her "somewhat advanced" years, of course, had no bearing on her identification of Floyd Caldwell, which was "not shaken."
Under Michigan law, a conviction for armed robbery carries a penalty of life or any term of years. On January 12, 1976, Judge Byrns completed his act of villainy by sentencing Floyd Caldwell to prison for life. Case closed.
Well, not quite. It seems that later in 1976, the lady who had the excellent eyesight at all times except the lineups got into a jam. Mrs. Laity ran someone down in her car, and was being prosecuted. Every judge in the county disqualified him or herself from the case because of their friendship with Harry and Frances Laity. This included Judge Byrns. It also included Judge Ronald Taylor then a District Judge and later the successor Circuit Judge to Judge Byrns after Byrns retired. Taylor later denied every motion for relief which Floyd Caldwell filed.
One may ask, if Judge Byrns is too biased to judge Frances Laity as a Defendant, why is he not too biased to judge her as a witness?
However, Floyd did not know of these disqualifications when his appeal was filed, so the judge bias issue was rejected by the Michigan Court of Appeals. In later years Floyd tried raising the issue many times, but did so poorly, as he was not well educated. With good representation, this injustice might possibly have been overturned.
Judge Ronald Taylor denied many of Floyd Caldwell's motions. However, after Floyd sued him, he at long last disqualified himself from the case, which was then sent to another county, to Judge Michael Dodge. When Floyd filed his motion to Judge Dodge in 1992, Judge Dodge refused to hear it, based on court rules adopted in 1989 that a person, once he has had an appeal, will almost never be allowed a second chance. After all, there has to be an end to these constant efforts by prisoners to overturn their convictions, doesn't there? After all, hearing Floyd Caldwell's complaints would only waste valuable minutes of a judge's busy day.
Floyd Caldwell and Berrien County.
Floyd was born in 1949 in Mississippi. At the time, Mississippi was one of the most racist states in the union. Like many others of his race, in 1967 he came north looking for a better life. Surely, Michigan would not be racist like Mississippi.
Unfortunately, Floyd ended up in Berrien County, Michigan, the closest thing we have in this state to the old South Africa. Of central importance to Berrien County are the "twin" cities of Benton Harbor and St. Joseph. St. Joseph is the county seat, where the courthouse is. It is prosperous, with a busy commercial downtown, and every storefront full. When I visited it in 1983 and in later years, it was all white. The only black people I saw were in the courthouse.
As I drove across the bridge, I crossed the river into the city of Benton Harbor. Benton Harbor has some very nice, integrated, well-off areas on the fringes. But as you cross the river, you come from downtown St. Joseph into downtown Benton Harbor. The difference is shocking. From an all-white town, you move into an all-black town. From a prosperous, bustling downtown, you move into a war zone. I saw block after block of closed down, boarded up businesses. Restaurants, car dealers, theaters, all closed. In the whole downtown, the only businesses I saw open were the MESC office (unemployment office), and a bar. It is like driving from Johannesberg into Soweto.
The lily-white bench of Berrien County, especially as it existed in 1975, has nothing good for the Floyd Caldwell's of this world. All Floyd ever got out of that county was an unjust conviction and a life sentence. And the knowledge that most black folks just don't have dolichocephalic heads.
It pays to be white.
The treatment Floyd Caldwell got is very different from the treatment that Frances Laity got from the same system. For a robbery in which no one was hurt (and of which he is innocent) Floyd was held on a $100,000 bond. He was the victim of several Rodney King-style attacks. He was repeatedly kicked and beaten sometimes at the jail, but more often in the tunnel connecting the courthouse and jail, where officers could get him alone without any witnesses. After one beating, he was hosed down and left in a room for days with the windows open without medical attention. His penis was bleeding. He required a wheelchair to go to court. He bears the scars even today. He was able to name 1 white and 2 black officers who were involved, but the majority involved in the beatings were white. The named officers were never brought to justice or charged, or apparently even questioned about the names of the others who participated in the beatings. A black man attacked by a group of thugs and left bleeding and unable to walk is not something of which the police or prosecutors of Berrien County would take any notice.
Frances Laity, for killing a 12 year old black child, Wanda Davis, was released on personal recognizance (no money required). After killing the girl, she had not so much as a restriction on her driver's license. She thanked the judge and the police for the "extreme courtesy" they showed her. Evidently, violent police conduct is reserved for black suspects.
Mrs. Laity said that she had something on her mind while driving: "the question was, did I have time to get my hair done between 3:30 and six." She hit a girl who was crossing the street in a crosswalk. Witnesses testified she was "pushing on the gas," "driving faster than normal," and that she was "speeding up" after she hit the girl. She claimed not to know she hit someone, even though witnesses said the little girl "flew up in the air" and "landed on the hood", and she had "run over and drug her for blocks" until others stopped her. This was just 4 months after she had another collision that required repairs to the other car.
When examined by the doctor, Wanda was thrashing all over the place in agony, had a bloated stomach, bruised lung, and fractures of the pelvic bones and right leg. Her liver was torn, suffering a "compression" or "bursting" injury, and she had a large hole in her inferior vena cava. Numerous vital blood vessels were torn, as well as her large and small intestines. She soon died from heart arrest and severe blood loss despite the doctor's efforts to save her. The doctor said it was the dragging under the car when Mrs. Laity refused to stop that caused the major injuries and the death, not the original collision.
Although Mrs. Laity claimed she was completely unaware she had hit the child, it was broad daylight, and the officer described the weather as clear and dry, and the girl flew up and landed on her hood before sliding off to be run over and dragged. Mrs. Laity claimed she had nothing to drink. Although 3 witnesses testified that she was driving at a high rate of speed, and speeded up after hitting the girl, the judge found that "there was no indication ... the defendant was operating the vehicle in a careless or reckless manner or at a high rate of speed."
Mrs. Laity was never required to pay restitution to the family of the girl she killed, and never did. Wanda Davis is buried without even a headstone. And, Peggy Davis, her sister, heard Mrs. Laity apologize for having had a martini. This may account for Mrs. Laity not seeing, hearing or feeling anything as she dragged the girl down the street. If Peggy Davis is telling the truth, then of course Mrs. Laity was lying. But Peggy Davis is a black woman, while Mrs. Laity is white.
And, if the weather conditions were clear and dry, and Mrs. Laity was not drinking, and Mrs. Laity was not speeding, and Mrs. Laity did not see the girl in the crosswalk, and Mrs. Laity did not see the girl fly up onto her hood and slide off, would this not say something about Mrs. Laity's eyesight and powers of observation?
For a killing, Mrs. Laity received probation and a $1000 fine, which she paid the same day. For not injuring anyone, Floyd Caldwell received life in prison.
Obviously, if you are charged with a crime in Berrien County, it pays to be white.
Floyd Caldwell in 2001, after 26 years of incarceration
So, here it is over 20 years later, and Floyd Caldwell rots away his life in a prison cell, while Judge Byrns enjoys his retirement. Perhaps Judge Byrns can tell you why he decided to sit in judgment on the testimony of his friends and how, in the space of less than one year, he moved from being unbiased about Mr. and Mrs. Laity to being so biased regarding Mrs. Laity that he was disqualified from hearing her case. Perhaps he can tell you why a lineup means nothing, and how identifying one person at a lineup leaves no doubt about the correctness of her identification of someone different at the trial. Perhaps he can tell you how he convicted a man without a forehead scar of a crime committed by a man with a forehead scar. Perhaps he can tell you, because I cannot.
Floyd has even passed a polygraph (lie detector) test, but so far that has done him no good. Because the court system has provided no justice for Floyd Caldwell, it is our hope that Michigan's Governor will restore confidence to our judicial system by granting a pardon to Floyd, or that Judge Dodge can be persuaded to give the case another look.
To see Floyd Caldwell as he is today (still without the forehead scar), after 29 years in prison, and his Department of Corrections information, go to http://www.state.mi.us/mdoc/asp/otis2profile.asp?mdocNumber=132250. For further information contact Cynthia Caldwell (wife of Floyd Caldwell): 878 E. Forest Street, Muskegon, MI, 49442.
Judge Chester Byrns is now deceased, and has lost his chance to undo the wrong he has done. However, other courts are still in operation. On September 27, 2004, a three judge panel of the federal Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals issued an order granting Floyd Caldwell the right to file a second Petition for Habeas Corpus (an earlier one having lost years ago). This is an extraordinary remedy, barred in most cases by federal law 28 U.S.C. sec. 2244. It is almost never given, and then only when judges are firmly convinced of the petitioner's innocence. Floyd accomplished this on his own, without an attorney.
Floyd still must convince a U.S. District Judge that he is entitled to a new trial, and if he does, he must protect that ruling against appeal by the state to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. Since that appeal would probably involve three different judges than the ones who gave him the permission to file, Floyd's future remains in doubt. This petition and appeal process is likely to take four to five years.
Let Governor Granholm know how you feel about this case. Send e-mail to Governor Jennifer Granholm at MIGOV@Mail.State.MI.US, or send regular mail to: Governor Jennifer Granholm, P.O. Box 30013, Lansing MI 48909. An online form now exists to contact Governor Granholm, and another to contact state agencies. You may cite, quote from or attach this web page if you wish. Make the request in your own words. You might wish to mention Floyd Caldwell's prison number (132250) or the case number from the Berrien County Circuit Court (Case No. 75-1734).
If you are a Michigan resident, contact your State Representative or your State Senator, in addition to contacting the Governor.
You can send contributions to the Floyd Caldwell Defense Fund, 878 E. Forest Street, Muskegon, MI 49442. You can send letters of support to Floyd and Cynthia Caldwell at the same address.
Want to help some more? First, go to top of window and size your browser window to be just larger than the graphic at the top of the page. Then, click here to see a one page, printable flyer about Floyd. Print it out and pass it around. A color printer is best, but a black and white printer will work. Floyd needs all the help he can get. Act now.