December 1, 2021

December 2021: Roeiah Epps-Ward

Roeiah Epps-Ward, Student Chapter Liaison, ACS Michigan Chapter Board of Directors; ACS Next Generation Leader

Roeiah Epps-Ward (she/her)

Student Chapter Liaison, ACS Michigan Chapter Board of Directors; ACS Next Generation Leader

For most, the path to justice and pursuit of the law doesn’t start because of a first love—unless you’re a girl nicknamed “Ro” from the eastside of Detroit. At the age of 11, I met my first boyfriend, Ramon Lamar Ward. Ramon and I quickly became enmeshed with the similarities of our dysfunctional upbringings. We talked for hours on the steps of an abandoned house on the corner of 8 Mile road near the I-75 interstate highway. Although we learned a lot of personal details about each other’s dysfunctional home life that summer night in 1987, I never disclosed I made my first suicide attempt just two days prior to our meeting. Thereafter, Ramon would be the only person speaking life into me during this dark time. Ramon always checked on me! Whether it was walking down a dangerous street to give me a huge stuffed bear, or sneaking to make a late-night phone call just to ask, “are you ok?” By the spring of 1992, Ramon and I had parted ways, separated by the streets and our abusive upbringings.  

Needless to say, my childhood carved the path for my education and career. After earning my bachelor’s degree in the spring of 2000, I became a Children’s Protective Services worker. On my lunchbreak in the fall of 2002, I ran into a childhood friend who was a police officer. We started talking about people in our old neighborhood, and he told me Ramon was in prison for murder. Something in my gut instantly told me Ramon was innocent. That’s the only thing that made sense. How could the person who spoke life into me when I tried to end my life, take someone else’s life? I immediately looked up Ramon’s inmate information and got confirmation of my gut feeling when I saw his mug shot. It was in his eyes; they said, “I don’t belong here.” I wrote Ramon a letter to encourage him and to remind him of how his life impacted mine and how I was advocating for children, the way no one did for us. Thereafter, we reconnected like we never separated. He told me he was innocent and that he had been wrongly convicted by the use of jailhouse informants, after being beaten, and held for seven days in custody before he was arraigned or provided counsel after making several requests. I immediately paid for a private investigator at the request of his second appellate attorney. However, his second attorney quit. She gave me Ramon’s file on a Friday afternoon and told me to hire another lawyer who was good in federal court because Ramon would not see any relief at the state level. I educated myself about Ramon’s case that weekend in 2003. I read his entire file. I reviewed all the transcripts. I saw there was no direct evidence, no ballistics evidence, no evidence at all linking Ramon to either murder. What’s worse, the prosecutor’s office had an internal memo, months prior to Ramon’s sentencing, indicating that the informants in Ramon’s case were known liars, could not be trusted, and that use of their testimony would lead to the prompt reversal of “any” conviction. However, none of this information was ever disclosed to Ramon or his trial attorney.  In that moment, a small voice inside whispered, “where is the justice, how is this right?” In 2004, I gathered all the money I had, depleting my savings, and retained Ramon’s third appellate attorney, despite being in my last year of grad school with two small children. This attorney only met with me on one occasion, visited Ramon twice in prison, and then failed to timely file the motion to reopen Ramon’s case. I became numb. I had no more money and no more hope, but a fire ignited inside of me. I knew Ramon was innocent. I had all the evidence before me. The only thing that made sense was to go to law school and work to get him out myself. 

One thing I learned quickly about being in a courtroom was that relationships and connections mattered. Whether I was advocating for a child in juvenile court or observing Ramon’s post-conviction hearings, who you are, and your reputation means everything, irrespective of the law. Although justice should be fair and impartial, Ramon’s wrongful conviction was a constant reminder that being equipped with the law was not going to be enough to ensure his freedom. After all, Ramon had at least two appellate attorneys, who were equipped with the same information about his case that I had, and they were unsuccessful in obtaining justice for Ramon. So I knew it wasn’t going to be enough to just go to law school and become a lawyer to get justice for Ramon. I had to build and orchestrate my entire law school experience on establishing relationships that would aid in getting Ramon out when I became an attorney. 

My first law school externship was with the Michigan Attorney Grievance Commission. In this role, I made disciplinary recommendations for complaints filed against attorneys under the Michigan Rules of Professional Conduct. However, I wanted to gain more experience in knowing what the prosecutor’s responsibilities are in bringing charges against someone accused of a crime. To my benefit, one of my last assignments dealt with this very issue and gave me a clearer understanding of Brady v. MarylandGiglio v. United States, Naupe v. Illinois, Smith v. Phillips, DeMarco v. United States, and all the candor rules for the professional conduct of prosecutors.  

Due to Ramon exhausting all appeal remedies at the state level, I knew any relief was going to have to come through the federal courts. As a result, I obtained a judicial externship my 3L year for the Honorable Victoria A. Roberts, United States District Court Judge for the Eastern District of Michigan, and student attorney position my 4L year for the Federal Pro Se Clinic. In both these roles, I gained experience in drafting judicial opinions and assisting indigent parties file civil actions in federal court. Because federal court experience can seem daunting to most attorneys, I wanted to make sure I looked and felt as if I belonged there before becoming an attorney. Being known by name (and not just another face at federal court) was an added bonus. 

However, by the time I graduated from law school in 2019, Ramon’s fourth appellate attorney had already filed his habeas petition in federal court and it was denied. A familiar feeling came back to haunt me: hopelessness. Thankfully, this feeling was short-lived when I recalled a vision and voice: In June 2016, I saw Attorney Valerie Newman walk Devontae Sanford out of prison after fighting to overturn his wrongful conviction. Upon seeing this, a small voice inside whispered, “That’s who’s going to help you get Ramon out of prison.” I didn’t know what that meant at the time because I didn’t know Ms. Newman. However, the same prosecutor’s office that brought charges against Ramon, now had a Conviction Integrity Unit (“CIU”), where Valerie Newman was the director and reviewed his case. I suddenly realized what that voice from inside meant. While I had envisioned that my work in the courtroom—filing motions all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court—would bring justice for Ramon, I learned that there are multiple paths to justice and my job as an attorney was just to ensure justice was served, whether it was through a CIU or a motion filed in court. The end goal is to get Ramon out of prison because he is innocent. Ramon, like other exonerees, had exhausted all remedies through the court system and still had not seen justice.  

Therefore, we must promote and encourage multiple paths to justice by requiring all prosecutor’s offices to have a CIU. CIU’s serve as a system of checks and balances to help right the wrongs. In addition, as lawyers in this mostly self-regulated profession, we must also conduct self-inventory examinations and remember that we are dealing with human beings; not case numbers. Rather than brag about conviction rates, prosecutors should stand against injustice by fighting to overturn wrongful convictions. Rather than being consumed with billable hours and encouraging plea deals, defense attorneys should remember to never define their clients by their worst day, weakest moment, or biggest mistake.  

I never forget these values in my practice of the law. Ramon was exonerated on February 20, 2020, by the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office CIU. We married on December 31, 2020. Together, we raise awareness about wrongful convictions and assist other exonerees transitioning out of prison and learning how to navigate life after finally receiving justice.

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