by Terry Kelly
The Michigan Citizen
Justice has seldom found a welcome in Berrien County. No more so than with the case of Efren Paredes.
Arrested at age 15, sentenced to three life sentences at 16 and still in prison at 35, Paredes has declared his innocence from the beginning, struggled to clear his name in a case with no direct evidence and no eyewitnesses.
With the help of countless supporters he is seeking clemency from the governor, a process that began before the parole board at a hearing Dec. 4 in Jackson. It was an historic hearing, drawing the largest number of supporters ever, over 200, and ran an unprecedented nine hours.
“This case screams wrongful conviction,” Paul Ciolino said in his testimony before the parole board. “The system is broken when it comes to this case.”
Ciolino, a private investigator hired by the Paredes family and supporters, is a co-founder of the Northwestern Innocence Project in Chicago and part of a legal and investigative team that has helped release over 200 innocent prisoners across the country, with direct involvement in five cases of proving wrongful conviction.
In Paredes’ case, Richard Tetzlaff, manager of Roger’s Vineland Grocery, was found shot to death execution-style in the store’s back room in 1989. On the night he was murdered and the store was robbed, Tetzlaff had earlier driven employee Paredes home from work.
Police and prosecutors who showed up in force for last week’s hearing had accused Paredes almost immediately of the crime despite the youth’s stellar record in school and out.
While three other Lakeshore High School youth admitted involvement in the store robbery, ranging from owning the gun used, to the car that was driven, only Paredes maintained innocence and denied participation. The others testified against him in exchange for reduced sentences.
Ciolino said that as in most cases of wrongful conviction the police and prosecutor focused on a single suspect early on and ignored other evidence and leads.
Paredes was the main suspect eight hours after the thing happened, Ciolino told the parole board, when there were five or six suspects.
Ciolino listed for the board the contradictory evidence, tainted evidence, missing evidence and bungling by the police.
At the hearing, police and prosecutors, attempting to rekindle much of the sensationalism of the 1989 trial, testified why in their mind Paredes was guilty and should not be returned to society.
Berrien County Chief Assistant Prosecutor Mike Sepic, who tried Paredes’ case, told the parole board that lyrics from the NWA rap song “Eight Ball Posse,” served as motivation for the police focus. Finding every word of the rap written out in Paredes’ high school locker led law enforcement to believe they knew Paredes “state of mind”— for the police, Paredes was a gang leader.
Prosecuting Attorney Arthur J. Cotter read into the record every word of the song, expletives and “n”-words.
Ciolino reminded the board that Paredes had never been involved with a gang, as a student, or even as a young prisoner. He also took issue with the police effort to say the rap song was a “window into his mind.”
A person’s conduct and personal history is the best indicator of behavior, Ciolino told the board.
Scott Elliott, a longtime prison reform activist, who has spent over a decade trying to clear Paredes and who testified at the historic hearing, told the Michigan Citizen later that the show of force by county law enforcement was an indication of the weakness of their case.
“If reciting that rap lyric was the best that Cotter could come up with, it seems pretty pathetic. From the beginning they fabricated their case against Efren almost totally out of whole cloth. That was apparent at the hearing.”
Parole Board members questioned Paredes about his trial and prison record. His answers were straightforward and persuasive.
Assistant Attorney General Charles Schettler was openly belligerent with Paredes, who kept his composure throughout the grilling as he detailed the flaws in the case against him.
Chair of the Parole Board, Barbara Sampson, warned Paredes at the beginning that in the view of the board he “was legally guilty” that he had been found so by a jury and a number of appeals had sustained the jury verdict.
Supporter after supporter testified to Paredes accomplishments. He has become a Braille translator and if released will establish his own business doing that work. Both the president of the Michigan Braille Association and his immediate supervisor testified to his superior work record, vision, knowledge and contributions.
Paredes would live in Battle Creek and not return to Berrien County, if released.
The members of the parole board who heard testimony Thursday will make a recommendation to the entire board which will then make a recommendation to Gov. Jennifer Granholm, who has the ultimate decision.
Sampson repeatedly emphasized that the parole board would make its recommendation on Paredes commutation to the governor based solely on his preparedness for release.