A 61-year-old man who has been in prison since 1976 was freed Thursday after a Wayne County Circuit judge agreed to vacate his sentence because his first-degree murder conviction was based on a discredited scientific method.

Thursday’s release of Ledora Watkins makes him the longest-serving inmate in the United States to be proven innocent, according to the National Registry of Exonerations.

Watkins was convicted April 15, 1976, and sentenced to life in prison for the Sept. 8, 1975, murder of Yvette Ingram, a 25-year-old teacher at Burroughs Junior High School in Detroit. She was shot at close range inside her apartment.

Watkins’ conviction was based in large part on microscopic hair comparison analysis, which last year was determined to be unreliable by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.

“It’s taken 41 years and eight months to get this done,” Watkins said. “I’m not a perfect man, but I’m a man that hopes, who is searching for mercy and grace. I haven’t been a perfect son, a perfect brother — but I’m not a murderer.”

The Western Michigan University Cooley Law School Innocence Project filed a motion to dismiss Watkins’ case. The claim of innocence was partially based on new evidence — the finding that hair comparison analysis is not a reliable scientific method.

Also, a co-defendant who was granted immunity in exchange for testifying against Watkins later recanted his story and swore Watkins had nothing to do with the murder.

Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy stipulated to the Innocence Project motion, which was granted Thursday by Judge Bruce Morrow.

“I can’t disagree with the stipulation,” Morrow said. “All right, Mr. Watkins, that about does it from my end of it.”

The people in the packed courtroom erupted in applause. Several dabbed their eyes with tissues. The judge then allowed Watkins to go through the courtroom, hugging relatives and supporters from the Cooley Innocence Project.

“I’m just grateful to God,” said Watkins’ cousin, Charlene Turner-Johnson. “This is truly amazing and overwhelming.”

Watkins was expected to be released from the Wayne County Jail.

Before rendering his ruling, Morrow asked Watson several questions.

“How come you didn’t give up?” the judge asked.

“I couldn’t give up … too many people were fighting for me,” Watkins said. “And a lot of them aren’t with us today. For me to give up … their work would’ve been in vain.

“Since my incarceration, I learned about those who came before me. I learned about my great-great grandfather, who was a slave in Basset … Virginia. It caused me to keep on fighting, because I know everything they went through … the stuff they fought against.

“For me to give up would mean they lived their life in vain. I know they didn’t go through all that so I could just be a slave in another system.”

The judge asked: “You mean you weren’t playing checkers every day?”

“I did a lot of self-examination,” Watkins said. “I realized I didn’t like the guy I was looking at in the mirror, so maybe I can make a change. I’m still making changes; still trying; still hoping.

“It’s been an ordeal. I had to forgive a lot of people. I had to forgive myself, and learn to love me. I had to apologize to a lot of people, especially my family. I wasn’t the only one suffering behind this. I just tried to make an improvement, and try to make life better.

“Just not too long ago, a corrections officer said to me, because I had been locked up for so long, I was a professional prisoner, and that I would never get out. I got kind of angry at that, but I knew … people often assume a lot of things.”

The judge asked: “Don’t you think they’re going to assume you got off on a technicality; that it doesn’t speak to their innocence, but a flaw in the prosecution?”

Watkins replied: “Some people see it that way, but what am I supposed to do?”

“Do what you’ve been doing for 41 years,” the judge said. “Don’t stop. Rest if you must, but don’t quit.”

“I started going back to school,” Watkins said. “I’m about six credits short of a degree. I’ve been trying to work and mentor younger prisoners. It’s just part of the process of trying to stay active in a contributory way.”

“Trying to hold onto your humanity … to not let that also be taken from you,” Morrow said.

At that point, Cooley Law School Innocence Project director Marla Mitchell-Cichon began crying. Morrow stepped down from the bench to offer her a tissue.

‘Junk science’

Microscopic hair comparison analysis involves an examiner using a high-powered microscope to view hair found at a crime scene and compare it to a known sample, to see if similarities exist. If there are enough similarities in categories like color, pigment aggregation, and shaft form, it’s deemed a match.

The method has long been criticized as unreliable. The FBI crime lab in 2015 limited its use of hair microscopy, introducing it only in conjunction with DNA testing.

A 2015 FBI analysis of 286 convictions before 2000 found that in more than 95 percent of the cases, forensic examiners gave flawed testimony, overstating hair comparison results in ways that favored prosecutors. Among the cases reviewed were those of 32 defendants sentenced to death, 14 of whom had been executed or died in prison.

The hair evidence used to convict Watkins no longer exists, and cannot be tested for DNA. DNA testing in criminal cases began in the mid-1980s.

“Hair comparison analysis is junk science,” Mitchell-Cichon said. “In 1976, they linked (Watkins) to the crime scene through hair comparison, and the testimony of a co-defendant who later recanted his story.”

Morrow agreed there is no evidence linking Watkins to the crime, and asked prosecutors why they stipulated to drop the case without prejudice, meaning it can be retried later.

Assistant prosecutor Jason Williams said it’s not the office’s policy to dismiss murder cases with prejudice, in case more evidence surfaces.

Morrow replied: “The witness recanted, the hair analysis is faulty. The only piece of evidence that existed … there was only one hair that was analyzed. Why should the possibility of retrial even be here?”

Cop, teacher, drugs murder

In November 1975, 10 days after Highland Park Police officer Gary Vazana was found murdered in his living room — a killing that was staged to look like a suicide — it was revealed during Watkins’ preliminary examination that the cop had ordered the execution of Ingram, who was believed to be hoarding a large amount of cocaine and cash.

According to Travis Herndon, Watkins’ co-defendant, the cop loaned the pair his Buick, surgical gloves and a .38 blue-steel revolver.

In addition to her teaching job, Ingram moonlighted as a dope dealer, police said. Several pounds of marijuana and records of drug transactions were found in her flat on Hubbell after her death.

Herndon was granted immunity in return for testifying against Watkins. Herndon said he and Watkins forced their way into Ingram’s flat at gunpoint. Herndon testified that Watkins told him to put a pillow over Ingram’s head to muffle the sound of gunfire before shooting her twice in the right temple.

Herndon later recanted his testimony.

An expert witness testified during the trial that a microscopic comparison of a strand of hair found on Ingram’s pants matched in 15 points of comparison with Watkins’ hair sample.

The previous record for the most time served in prison before being exonerated was Ricky Jackson, who was incarcerated 39 years, three months and nine days for a murder conviction before being released in 2015.

A report last year by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology found that expert evidence based on a number of forensic methods, including bite mark analysis and microscopic hair comparisons — are not reliable.

Mitchell-Cichon said more convictions based on the hair evidence need to be re-examined.

“Justice takes too long for some people,” she said. “I’m just happy everyone in the courtroom got a chance to know Mr. Watkins in a small way.”

During his questioning, the judge asked Watkins: “Why did God pick you?”

Watkins thought for a second before responding:

“My name is Ledora. For a long time I didn’t know what that meant until a college professor said, ‘that’s French; it means adorable one.’ That struck me. Adorable one?

“Maybe I had to go through this to live up to my name. Maybe I had to go through this for a higher purpose. I wouldn’t wish this journey on anyone else, but I think everything has a meaning.”

ghunter@detroitnews.com

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Twitter: @GeorgeHunter_DN