Detroit Brothers Exonerated in 1987 Drug Murder

A Facebook post led a new witness to come forward in the decades-old case.

ByKevin Dolak
September 26, 2013, 12:30 PM

Sept. 26, 2013 — -- A judge has dropped all charges against two Detroit brothers who have spent the past 25 years in jail for a 1987 murder after a Facebook post led new witnesses to come forward.

Raymond Highers, 47, and Tommy Highers, 48, learned today that that Judge Lawrence Talon had dismissed the decades-old felony murder, assault with intent to murder and felony firearm charges against them. The brothers were arrested in 1987 in connection with the homicide of Robert Karey, an elderly marijuana dealer, that same year.

"Words can't describe this," Tommy told from a family barbecues celebration today. "It's a new chapter in our lives. We always felt that this day would come. You really have to."

The judge today granted a motion for dismissal by prosecutor Kym L. Worthy, even though she says that she still believes that the brothers are guilty.

"Just as we did 26 years ago, we firmly believe in the evidence in this case," Worthy said. "We have worked diligently to bring this case to trial. With the passage of time it is an unfortunate reality that this case cannot be put back together and we must dismiss it. Sadly, in this case justice was not done."

In 1987, Robert Karey, an elderly marijuana dealer, was murdered at the back door of his Detroit home. The 22- and 23-year-old Highers brothers were convicted of the killing in a three-week trial the following year.

The key witness in their 1987 trial was Thomas Culberson, a security guard who went to Karey's home to buy marijuana on the night of the murder. Culberson said he saw two white men fleeing the scene in a car, and later identified Raymond Highers.

"We do believe that the cops hid evidence, but we can't prove it," attorney Valerie Newman said.

Thomas told that he and his brother did drive by Karey's house that night, but when they arrived, police tape was covering the entrance.

"It was illicit drug activity. We had no business using," he said. "We had bought from him. It was something that we normally did, we'd see him two, three, four, times per week."

Culberson had said at their trial that he saw two men wearing shorts flee the property, Newman said. Culberson later identified Raymond in a police lineup, but Newman said the ID was inaccurate.

"They had a lot of problems with the lineup," Newman told "The witness didn't ID anyone in first, but the cops put Ray in a live lineup anyway. This ID was not accurate."

Inside the house was a large bathtub filled with marijuana, which disappeared that night, according to Newman. She says that the two white men seen fleeing the crime scene could not have been carrying that amount of marijuana as they ran from the house.

In July 2012, Circuit Judge Lawrence Talon threw out the 1988 convictions and ordered a new trial, after a 2009 Facebook post prompted new witnesses to come forward. Two of those witnesses said they saw Karey being shot by two black men at the back door of his house. The Highers brothers are white.

After a former Detroit resident, Kevin Zieleniewski, came across a Facebook post by Mary Evans about the men's life sentences in 2009, he reconnected with a former law school friend, John Hielscher, who told him decades ago that he had been at Karey's that night, and that Karey had been killed by black men, Newman said.

Hielscher agreed to testify at an evidentiary hearing in March along with his friend James Gianunzio, who was also at Karey's when the shooting happened.

Hielscher and Gianunzio testified that they were at Karey's back door when they saw armed black men approach them and heard a gunshot before they fled, according to the Free Press. Their testimony raised doubts over whether the Highers brothers were the white men Culberson saw fleeing.

Newman said that it is "highly unlikely" that the Highers brothers will be able to file a civil case now that their criminal charges have been dismissed, as there is not enough hard evidence that police hid information in the 1987 investigation and subsequent trial. But she has her doubts about the investigation.

"We do believe that the cops hid evidence, but we can't prove it," she said. "We do have one of the witnesses we spoke to, a critical alibi, who says he called the police and said he was with them that night. That never came out at the first trial."

Newman says there is hope though, with the Wrongful Imprisonment Compensation Act currently moving through the Michigan Senate. Michigan is one of 21 states that do not compensate the wrongfully convicted.

Thomas said that he's not dwelling on compensation for losing a large piece of his life, and is trying to put the experience behind him.

"I think we're owed something … a mistake happened," he said. "But how do you repay that? That's a long time gone that's never coming back, the best years of our lives. I don't think any money could do that."

The brothers have been out of jail since their convictions were thrown out in 2012. Now, Ray is working for a heating and cooling company and Tommy is an on-site maintenance man at an apartment complex. While Tommy has gotten his own apartment, Ray was living with his Aunt and Uncle, waiting to see what would happen to him.

"Now that the case is over, he will be getting a place of his own," Newman said. "There was trepidation, to move forward, but now he can."

ABC News Alon Harish contributed to this report.

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events