Shortly before midnight, on May 19, 2005 someone threw a Molotov cocktail into the second-floor bedroom window of 19428 Charleston Street, Highland Park, Michigan, setting the house on fire. The house was occupied by Naomi Vaughn, her boyfriend Ronrico Simmons (who was not present at the time of the fire), and her five children. The fire resulted in the deaths of 10-year old Raylond McCulley and 1-year old Tamyah Vaughn.
Ken Nixon and his on-and-off girlfriend, LaToya Caulford were implicated in the firebombing by statements from 13-year old Brandon Vaughn. He told investigators that he heard a noise, went into his brother's room, and saw the fire. He then looked out and saw Nixon running towards the green car of Caulford. Nixon had been childhood friends with Ronrico Simmons, and there was bad blood between the two because of Simmons' intermittent involvement with Caulford, during the time that Nixon was in an on-and-off relationship with her. Based upon these facts, and Brandon's statement, Nixon and Caulford were arrested and charged with crimes relating to this incident, including two counts of First Degree Felony Murder, four counts of Attempted Murder, and Arson of a Dwelling.
Prior to the Trial, Nixon passed a digital polygraph test relating to the crimes, stating that he had nothing to do with the firebombing and was with Caulford, nowhere near the crime scene, at the time of the crime.
Nixon and Caulford were tried together, with separate juries.
At Trial, Brandon Vaughn gave testimony which conflicted with his initial statements, regarding details of the story. The Prosecutor also presented testimony from Naomi Vaughn, which conflicted with Brandon's in many details, as well as several police investigators whose testimony also conflicted with Brandon's in many ways.
The Prosecutor also presented testimony from Stanley January, who was a cellmate of Nixon’s in the county jail prior to the Trial. January had already agreed with the Prosecutor to testify in an unrelated murder trial in exchange for a 1-3 year sentence on the bank robbery charge he was facing. He had previously been a jailhouse snitch, using his "jailhouse informant" status to get reduced sentences and early paroles in a string of crimes dating back to 1993. January claimed that Nixon had confessed to his involvement in the firebombing of the Vaughn residence, and claimed that Nixon had told him he was unaware that kids were inside. January further claimed that Nixon had told him the firebombing had occurred following a party at Vaughn’s house that he had attended, and that there had been a fight at the party. January repeatedly testified that he had not seen anything on the news about the case.
Nixon was convicted of all charges, and sentenced to two terms of mandatory life without parole, concurrent with four 20-40 year terms and another concurrent term of 10-20 years. Caulford was acquitted of all charges.
Nixon’s lawyer filed an Appeal, arguing that a post-trial Affidavit from Caulford affirming that he had nothing to do with the crimes and that he had been with her at the time, entitled Nixon to a new Trial. Caulford and Nixon were on Trial together, albeit with a separate jury. Caulford was not permitted to testify for Nixon by her lawyer, so after the Trial she perfected the sworn Affidavit. Caulford also passed a post-trial polygraph examination. Counsel also argued several other trial errors on the Appeal, which was denied in 2007.
In 2009, Nixon filed a Motion in the Trial Court seeking relief from the judgment based upon ineffective trial counsel and prosecutorial misconduct for knowingly presenting perjured testimony. The Trial Court rejected the motion, and this was upheld on Appeal. Nixon then sought relief in a Federal Habeas Corpus Petition which was rejected under the new stringent rules in 2012.
Nixon also passed a second, post-trial digital polygraph test establishing his innocence. While some jurisdictions hold that polygraph tests are inadmissible, it is not due to unreliability, it is rather due to the judicial deference to, and preference to have cases decided by, "triers of fact" (meaning the judge or jury) and concerns that polygraphs would remove the fact-finding process from their province. Some jurisdictions have what is called a "stipulation-agreement" rule, which means that if both sides agree that the results can be presented in Court, no matter the outcome, then the Court will admit the results. Almost universally it is the Prosecution who refuses to agree to use the results, which is inexplicable, as clinical studies have established that the new digital polygraph tests are 99.8% accurate, (far more accurate than their analog predecessors at 85%) and are used by the FBI and the military for security screening purposes.
In 2015, Nixon and his family started filing FOIA Records Requests with the Prosecutors Office and the Police Department seeking informaiton about the case. After multiple requests, many of which were refused, or ignored, and some of which resulted in the production of documents with the important exculpatory portions heavily redacted, they finally obtained a plethora of documents establishing his innocence.
Specifically, they found documents establishing that Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Patrick Muscat, had issued a request to Police Lieutenant James Tolbert to further investigate the case and attempt to strengthen and corroborate the testimony of Brandon Vaughn, based upon a memo by Police Officer Kurtiss Staples noting that Brandon's statement was "obviously coached by family members". In this statement, the investigating officer informed the Prosecutor, through his Lieutenant, that the various inconsistent statements by, and obvious coaching of Brandon by family members "will only make his testimony in Court difficult at best". Staples further advised that "this new statement will only make the case against Nixon come into a question of fact and puts our case in jeopardy". These memos were not provided to the Defense at Trial.
Because Nixon and his family had heard rumors on a prior suspicious fire at the Vaughn house, multiple FOIA document requests unearthed documents that establish that the Prosecution was aware of a previous suspicious fire at the Vaughn's prior residence, wherein APA Muscat noted in his memo that the Vaughn family's prior residence was "firebombed by a jealous boyfriend and a Molotov cocktail. Facts that are extremely similar to this case." This fact was also withheld.
Further investigations by private investigators, hired by Nixon’s family unearthed the fact that the owner of the house in which the Vaughns resided was named Jamil Kosho, who had an insurance policy on the property, and who has a prior conviction for insurance fraud. Further, Kosho's brother, Jamal Kosho, has a history of violence and drug offenses. Jamil was friends with Ronrico Simmons.
What makes the connection of the Kosho brothers to this case more telling is the discovery of an extant eyewitness, Odis Whitty, whose porch is perpendicular to the Vaughn house, and who was sitting on his porch with his sister, Laura, when he saw a middle eastern man in a 2-door white car throw a Molotov cocktail at the Vaughn's residence. Whitty previously told a police investigator that he had seen this, but was never revealed as a witness, nor called to testify. Jamil and Jamal Kosho both match the description given by the sole independent eyewitness to this crime.
In 2018, the Medill Justice Project journalism students travelled from Evanston, Illinois to visit Nixon. They came back a few months later to interview Ken's family and others who were involved in the case. They even spoke to one of the jurors who had been involved in the case. Medill Justice Project interviewed Stanley January, the jailhouse snitch, and he had completely contradicted his original testimony. They also interviewed Lisa Medina, who just so happened to have kept a journal, she had the journal entries from the night of the fire, and she had written about it. They were able to corroborate Nixon’s alibi by finding the old TV Guides that outlined the date and time of the television show that Nixon had stated he and LaToya had been watching the night of the fire. Nixon and his family had no idea those even existed either. After their investigation, Medill Justice Project wrote an article about it, and they were also able to get it published in the Detroit Free Press, which was fantastic since it's the biggest newspaper in Detroit. This article can be read at https://www.freep.com/story/news/2018/10/27/kenneth-nixon-life-sentence/1739835002/
The Innocence Project, noting that Prosecutor Muscat had also sent the police to interview Nixon’s cellmates, conducted multiple interviews with Stanley January, during which he admitted that he had, in fact, seen the news stories about the firebombing on TV before even meeting Nixon, contradicting his trial testimony and establishing how he obtained the facts of the case upon which he based his story at the Trial of the "jailhouse confession" he claimed Nixon gave him.
The Innocence Project's discovery corroborates the statement of an extant witness, Christopher Crump, who provided a sworn Affidavit establishing that January had bragged to Crump about setting up Nixon, lying about the alleged statements, and receiving one year in exchange for his fabricated testimony against Nixon.
Based upon all of the facts of this case, the evidence presented at the Trial, the evidence known to and withheld by the Prosecutor, and the evidence and information uncovered by Nixon, his family and the WMU-Cooley Innocence Project, it is indisputable that Kenneth Nixon had nothing at all to do with the firebombing of the Vaughn house and is in fact, actually innocent.
ACTUAL INNOCENT PRISONERS are in hopes that the Wayne County Conviction Integrity Unit will perform a thorough review of the case and arrive at the same conclusion and exonerate Ken Nixon and set him free.
We also thank the WMU Cooley Innocence Project for their diligence and dedication to the truth.
On February 18, 2021 Ken Nixon was released from prison. He walked away a free man after a judge overturned his conviction.
The Western Michigan University Cooley Law School Innocence Project now claims 28 convictions overturned.