Gainforth, at the time, refused to take a plea bargain and insisted on his innocence.His parents and their friends spent thousands of dollars on two attorneys since then, but ran out of money. Finally Gainforth himself wrote a brief that was filed in 2004.
Last week, a state appellate defense attorney successfully argued for a new trial for Gainforth. She contended that he couldn’t possibly have shot James Burton because he couldn’t see well enough to shoot at a distance of 50 yards, especially on a rainy night. Yet the issue was never raised in the original trial.
Eighteen months before the July 15, 1984 murder, Gainforth was discharged from the military because a blind spot in his eye prevented him from being able to sight an M-16, a rifle nearly identical to the alleged murder weapon.
His defense attorney at the time was Mike Haley, who now sits as judge for the 86th District Court and was the first witness called to the stand.
(HERE IS AN INTERESTING PARAGRAPH)
Circuit Judge Tom Power agreed Gainforth’s defense was inadequate and granted a new trial, which the prosecution said it would immediately appeal to the state Court of Appeals. If the appeal is denied, Gainforth could theoretically get out of prison on bond as early as January 15, but that’s unlikely. Grand Traverse County Prosecutor Al Schneider said if he loses the appeal, he’ll take the case to the state Supreme Court.
Last week’s decision most certainly brings back the pain of the decades-old trial and senseless murder of James Burton, who was only 20 at the time.
It is a highly unusual ruling on a few levels. First, there’s the professionally awkward fact that Haley is an 86th District Judge and has been for a decade. He served as public defender in this case. Power, who is responsible for granting the hearing last week, is a circuit judge and sits one floor above Judge Haley (or at least did before the new courthouse recently opened), and hears appeals of his district court cases.
If you drew a circle around all the players and their offices in this case, you’re looking at a tiny realm where everyone must get along while trying to serve the higher cause of justice. The realm in 1984 included even the defendant’s own father—a deputy sheriff of 31 years. And yet this closely knit legal community decided to take a good, long look in the mirror and listen to the arguments of a man who sat in an 8x10 cell for 22 years.
PACKS A PUNCH
The hearing was held Tuesday on the third floor of the Grand Traverse County courthouse in a relatively small courtroom. Gainforth’s attorney was Val Newman, a diminutive woman who packs a punch in a polite way. She works for the State Appellate Defender Office in Detroit and was accompanied by another attorney and a chief investigator.
Prosecutor Al Schneider delivered effective opposing arguments, but admitted he was hampered. He was not the prosecutor in 1984—that was John Foresman, now the 86th District Judge whose office is right next to Judge Haley’s.
It is interesting to note that this story gained national attention in the mid-1980s, yet on Tuesday, only one spectator attended the hearing. Lining the courtroom were several armed guards, who remarked during a break that Gainforth—who reportedly has an IQ of 130—was well-behaved and taught himself the law in order to write the brief that Power praised as finely written.
The atmosphere was casual, but respectful, with a free give-and-take between Power, Schneider and Newman.
In the opening statements, Newman contended that the only thing that tied Gainforth to the murder was the testimony of witnesses Doug Hutchinson and Kevin Snyder. Both were men known for partying and playing war games with Gainforth in Hoosier Valley, a stretch of wild, disreputable country south of Traverse City. They agreed to testify against Gainforth in exchange for a plea bargain in which they would receive shorter sentences than if they were convicted of first degree murder.
In 1999, someone who had access to then Grand Traverse County Probate Judge John Foresman's rubber signature stamp rubber stamped our rights to our then 9 year old son, who was the warehoused and drugged in an Antrim County foster home that was licensed by Northwest Michigan Child Guidance Center. We never saw the judge one time during our ordeal.
See that story at Antrim County Confidential on this blog.