Michigan Man Celebrates Two Years of Freedom


Nathaniel Hatchett

was exonerated two years ago this week after spending 10 years in a Michigan prison for a rape he did not commit.

A woman was getting into her car outside of a Sterling Heights, Michigan Super K-Mart one night in 1996 when she was assaulted by a hooded man who told her he had a gun. The man forced the woman into her car and made her perform oral sex on him while he drove. He then pulled the car over and vaginally raped her. Eventually, the perpetrator left the victim at a highway on-ramp and took the car.

Several days later, Hatchett and four other men were stopped by police while driving the stolen car. Hatchett, who was only 17-years-old at the time, and has an IQ of 74, told police that he had stolen the car with his friends after they had seen it parked on the street for days. Then, after being subjected to over seven hours of interrogation, Hatchett waived his Miranda rights and confessed, believing he could go home after telling officers what they wanted to hear. DNA testing was performed before trial on a vaginal swab taken from the victim’s underwear. These results excluded Hatchett. Macomb County District Attorney Eric Kaiser requested that the victim’s husband’s DNA also be compared against the sample. The husband was excluded, but Kaiser never informed Hatchett’s attorney of this critical evidence.

At Hatchett’s bench trial in 1998, a forensic analyst testified that a pubic hair taken from the crime scene had similar characteristics to Hatchett’s hair. The victim also identified Hatchett in court. In his closing statement, Kaiser, who had known for six months that neither Hatchett nor the husband were the source of semen, stated that “we really can’t speculate whether another person, the husband, the Lone Ranger, created any vaginal deposits that were eventually tested.” Hatchett was convicted and sentenced to 25-40 years in prison.

Kaiser rehashed his original claim after Hatchett filed his first appeal less than a year after his conviction. Kaiser argued that the DNA evidence was only a single piece of evidence in a three day, ten-witness trial, and that the semen may have come from the victim’s husband. The Cooley Innocence Project took Hatchett’s case in 2006 and conducted a second round of testing on the semen sample. The results, revealed in 2008, again excluded Hatchett and the victim’s husband. With this evidence in hand, Hatchett’s attorneys filed a motion for a new trial. To defense counsel’s surprise, prosecutors decided to support the motion and dismiss all charges against Hatchett. He was officially exonerated and released from prison on April 14, 2008.

Hatchett’s case shows that access to DNA testing alone is not enough to prevent wrongful convictions, especially where other misconduct has occurred. Other safeguards, including open, standardized procedures for DNA testing, as well as increased cooperation between prosecutors and defense counsel, are necessary to avoid injustice. Prosecutors such as Kaiser also must remember that their mandate, above all else, is to seek justice.

After his exoneration, Hatchett sued Kaiser, as well as the city and police department for their role in his wrongful imprisonment. Unfortunately, in February 2010, a federal district court dismissed Hatchett’s civil rights lawsuit on summary judgment on the grounds that Kaiser was entitled to absolute prosecutorial immunity, preventing civil liability even though he engaged in conduct which the court found “disturbing.”

Other Exoneree Anniversaries This Week:

Ron Williamson

, Oklahoma (Served 11 years, Exonerated 4/15/99)

Dennis Fritz

, Oklahoma (Served 11 years, Exonerated 4/15/99)

Victor Larue Thomas

, Texas (Served 15 years, Exonerated 4/17/02)

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