MUSKEGON, Mich. (WOOD) — It appeared a two-year-old murder case was at last coming to a close as the accused killer pleaded guilty to murder, but that all came unglued over a dispute about whether the confession was given under a promise of immunity.
The body of 26-year-old Robert Dawson Jr. was discovered in a Muskegon Heights alley by his father in the early morning hours of May 28, 2014.
It would go unsolved for more than six months until robbery suspect Bobby Gamble was being interrogated by investigators about an unrelated robbery.
In that interview, Gamble would give statements that allegedly implicated him in the homicide.
Muskegon County prosecutors say Dawson interrupted Gamble and another man in the process of planning a robbery and Gamble killed Dawson to keep him quiet.
But not everyone believes that theory of the case, including Dawson’s uncle who lived with the victim and heard those shots.
“For him to kill somebody and say it’s because they overheard something, that’s ridiculous,” said Floyd Dawson. “So I think, me myself, I think it was just cold-blooded murder.”
Dawson said he heard the shots early that morning and wishes he had done something different that could have maybe saved his nephew.
“That’s a cowardly act, y’know, to shoot somebody in the back,” Dawson said. “They was intentionally trying to kill him.”
Gamble ended up pleading guilty to open murder and was about to allow a judge to decide what degree of murder it was, but his attorney Naesha Leys said her client’s confession should not be allowed because he was speaking under immunity.
“That was his understanding that his words were not going to be used against him,” Leys said.
But prosecutors say they told the client and his attorney that if he harmed or killed someone, the immunity did not apply.
“I can tell we’ve never, and will never, grant immunity to anybody who kills somebody, it’s never going to happen,” said Muskegon Prosecutor D.J. Hilson.
“I’ve never seen anything like this in my entire 16 years of practicing law,” Leys said.
As is usual in these cases, the prosecution and the defense disagree about what is shown by a tape of interaction between the suspect, his attorney and investigators and both say testimony backs them up.
An appeals court did not throw the case out, but the Circuit Court judge allowed Gamble to withdraw his plea. Meys said she will again ask for the statements to be tossed out.
Leys said without the statements which led police to a gun, the prosecution will have nothing.
“That will leave them in the same spot they were prior to Bobby Gamble’s statement which is they had no idea Bobby Gamble was even involved,” Leys said.
Leys said it is time for attorneys in Muskegon to rethink how they do business.
“This was a hallway conversation, ‘yup, we’ll grant him immunity,’ that’s part of the problem, a little too trivial for the things that are at stake,” Leys said. “The whole moral of this whole story is if you get an immunity agreement for a client, write it down.”
Hilson said that’s not a problem.
“We’ll always, if the defense counsel asks. We’ll always reduce it to writing for them,” Hilson said.
Former Muskegon Prosecutor Brett Gardner spent nearly three decades going after criminals and now he works as a defense attorney.
“Verbal offers of immunity, while they aren’t ideal, they are not unheard of,” Gardner said.
Gardner said it is important for everyone to know what they are agreeing to.
“If I was a defendant in Muskegon I wouldn’t talk to anybody about anything until it was signed by a judge,” Leys said. “They have a systematic way out there on the west coast of getting in evidence that they already said would not be used.”
She says this is about more than just this case.
“The implication is the cases where immunity has been granted and then they somehow skirt that and still use the evidence they promised not to use, the implication is we have a lot of cases to look at again,” Leys said. “Because if they can still walk around it and get it in another way, then it’s a useless piece of paper.”
Hilson said there is no problem here despite what this particular defense attorney says.
“I have no issues with how my assistant handled this particular investigation, how it was communicate, and what that communication was between the defense lawyer and Mr. Gamble, we’re not part of that,” Hilson said.
This month, the case will go back for a status conference and Leys said she will again ask the appeals court to look at disallowing the statements — she says now that her client has withdrawn his guilty plea, they should be thrown out.