By John Wisely and Jim Schaefer
Detroit Free Press
DETROIT - The news that Raymond and Thomas Highers had waited 26 years to hear came on their cellphones - devices that were just in their infancy when the brothers went to prison for murder.
Raymond was 40 feet in the air Wednesday, working in a lift at his job with a heating and cooling company. Thomas was sitting at his kitchen table, eating ham sandwiches and ravioli for lunch with his girlfriend.
Their lawyer, Valerie Newman, had startling news: Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy was dropping the murder charges against them, ending a saga of 25 years in prison and another year waiting and worrying that they might go back.
"I'm just elated," Thomas Highers, 48, said. "It means a fresh start for me. It means freedom for me to do the things I want to do, to visit family in other states. I have no felony conviction on my record."
Raymond Highers, 47, agreed.
"It means freedom and life. It's been a long day coming," he said. "Over 26 years, we've fought for this, and it's finally here. It's like being vindicated."
On Thursday morning, the men are to appear before Wayne County Circuit Judge Lawrence Talon, who will consider Worthy's motion to dismiss the case. If he approves it, as Newman expects, Thomas and Raymond will be truly free for the first time since 1988.
"Being able to correct an injustice, there's no greater feeling," Newman said Wednesday. "They would have died in prison. It's a testament to the human character that they hold no bitterness."
A long road
The two brothers have been in limbo since last summer, when Talon released them pending a retrial after new witnesses came forward in the 1987 murder of Robert Karey. The new witnesses identified the gunmen who killed Karey as black. The Highers brothers are white.
They were set for a second trial to begin Oct. 8, but Worthy announced Wednesday that she's moving to drop the case. Still, she said in a news release that her office believes the evidence shows they're guilty.
"Just as we did 26 years ago, we firmly believe in the evidence in this case. We have worked diligently to bring this case to trial," Worthy said. "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."
"Their primary witnesses are alive and available," Newman said. "The evidence now undercuts their entire theory. There is overwhelming evidence of innocence in this case. We were absolutely prepared to exonerate them."
Newman said the new witnesses, coupled with other evidence, were a godsend for the brothers.
"For a non-DNA case, and a case that's 25 years old, to be able to put it back together, that's some sort of divine intervention," Newman said. "The only thing we didn't do is identify the real killers, and realistically they won't identify the people who killed Bob Karey, and that's sad. His family deserves that."
Newman said there's little chance for a civil suit to compensate the pair for their time in prison because there's no indication authorities hid anything during the case, which would be required for a lawsuit.
A Facebook connection
The road to freedom for the brothers began in July 2009, when Washington lawyer Kevin Zieleniewski was on Facebook looking to reconnect with friends from his old Detroit neighborhood. He saw a post noting the Highers brothers were in prison for life.
When he learned it was for killing Karey, known as "Old Man Bob" to the teens who bought marijuana from him at his home, Zieleniewski froze.
In 1993, Zieleniewski was a student at the University of Detroit Law School and was rooming with an acquaintance named John Hielscher in Grosse Pointe Park. One night, Hielscher told him a story about being at Karey's house the night of the shooting and said he'd heard a gunshot.
Hielscher recounted going to the house with four friends after a graduation party. It was near dusk when Hielscher and a friend approached the back door where Old Man Bob did business.
As Karey came to the door, Hielscher said, four or five young black men hopped over a fence from an alley behind the house. One carried a long gun, another a pistol. Hielscher said the man with the handgun came close and pointed the gun at him and his friend.
"I can remember it as if it was yesterday. It was almost up to my head," Hielscher told the Free Press last year. The gunman said, "Get the (expletive) out of here," he recalled.
Hielscher said he and his friend ran around the corner of the house toward the car, where their other friends waited.
"I heard a gun go off," he said. "Once I got in that car, we got the hell out of there."
Zieleniewski eventually tracked down Hielscher and convinced him to come forward with what he knew.
Newman began working to get the brothers a new trial. Thomas Highers said he'd been dreading the thought of returning to court.
"Your life is in other people's hands," he said. "It happened before. I'm not saying it would happen this time, but you never know."
Both men say they're looking forward to moving on and reconnecting with family members, including those who live out of state.
Since Talon released them on bond, both have been wearing electronic tethers to track their movements.
They were prohibited from traveling out of state. And they had to refrain from using drugs or alcohol.
"They can't even have a beer," Newman said.
Raymond Highers said that might change Thursday night if all goes well.
"It's going to be a celebration," he said.
Detroit Free Press