Justice at a Price
The City locked up Michael Lee for murder, then paid him $1 million
"I hope nobody else has to find out what it feels like to be the most-hated man in the state."
He spent 15 months in the Bernalillo County Metropolitan Detention Center before being released in March 2009. He was facing the death penalty for the murder of the Yis, an elderly couple who'd been found dead in their Northeast Heights home in December 2007. "It's the scariest thing I've ever been through. Hands down."
Back then, Lee was working for a company called Integrity, which sent salesmen door-to-door nationwide with deals on books, CDs and magazines. He'd been in Albuquerque a few days and was training Travis Rowley, a guy he'd known only briefly through work. A van would drop them off, then move down the street and drop off more salesmen. Eventually, the driver would loop back around and pick them all up.
The job wasn't so bad, says Lee. "I wouldn't call it hard work, because work's only as hard as you make it. I would call it a challenge and a test of one's character."
As they knocked on doors in the Heights in 2007, Lee had no idea how much his character would be tested in the months to come.
"I'm like, Mom, I promise you on everything I love, I did not do this."
The lawsuit’s charges of shoddy investigation techniques don't stop with the paper trail: DNA evidence from Lee and Rowley was absent from the hundreds of physical samples taken from the crime scene.
Clifton Bloomfield killed newlywed Scott Pierce about six months later, and Bloomfield's DNA was a match to the Yi evidence. Bloomfield confessed to killing five people, including the Yis, and was sentenced to 195 years in prison in October 2008.
Yet Lee and Rowley weren’t released until March 2009. One of Lee's lawyers, Brad Hall, says two weeks before they were set to go to trial, District Attorney Kari Brandenburg realized there was no hard evidence against them.
Rowley had implicated himself and Lee in the crime, but Hall says the “confession” was coerced. As an example, the civil suit points out that Rowley claimed—with strong leading from detectives—Lee stole a diamond ring off of one of the victim's fingers. But the Yis' family found the ring in the house weeks later.
From the beginning, Rowley didn’t seem as sharp as your average person, Lee says. “It’s unfortunate that he did not have the mental ability to realize the tricks and stupid little games the cops were playing.” The two haven’t spoken since they were released from jail, Lee says. “I feel more sorry for him than angry at him.”
Deputy City Attorney Kathy Levy writes in an emailed statement that the investigation did not stop with the confession. Further, the city and detectives “do not, have not and will not admit liability,” she says. The city opted to settle based on a cost analysis that determined “it was in the best interests of all parties that the case be brought to a conclusion,” Levy says.
"That whole saying, You're innocent until proven guilty? Bullshit," says Lee. "I hope nobody else has to find out what it feels like to be the most-hated man in the state."
He remembers being paraded in front of reporters and cameras before he was carted off to jail. He's seen news reports from the time talking about how there was a confession from the magazine salesmen. "I never said anything besides, Do your job and get me out of here. Find the DNA."
Though Lee hadn't faced trial yet, the headlines blazed on. The city filed a suit against Lee's employer, Integrity. Officials also announced a plan to stiffen door-to-door solicitation laws and require background checks. The real killer, Bloomfield, didn't work as a salesman. (Though he was headed for the silver screen as an extra in a movie called Felon starring Val Kilmer. Bloomfield was cast to play a convict in late 2007.)
One day as Lee sat in his cell, he saw himself on television. "All of a sudden, the news comes up, and it's my picture on the TV, and I'm being charged with like rape and murder and conspiracy, theft—all kinds of stuff. I'm probably more shocked than all of the people around me because I had never heard of any of that."
A correctional officer came to his cell soon after and moved Lee into protective custody. His high-profile case put him in danger, he says, so he was locked away with child molesters and rapists. "I didn't feel safe being in there," he says. He estimates he spent six or seven months in protective custody.
There was a period of time when even his mom back in North Carolina wasn't sure what to believe, he says. "They told my mom they had a written confession from me." He spent hours on the phone reassuring his mother. "I'm like, Mom, I promise you on everything I love, I did not do this."
Upon his release, Lee returned to Greensboro, N.C., and began trying to find a job—a task that proved challenging when a Google search of his name brought up pages of murder accusations. He finally landed a gig in the kitchen at Chili's.
That was before he settled his case for close to $1 million. Part of the money will go to a college fund for his unborn son, who's due in September.
Lee says he'll also donate a chunk of the settlement to the Innocence Project, an organization dedicated to seeking DNA evidence to free people who've been wrongfully convicted. "I could have easily just given up and been like, Whatever happens happens. Spending that much time in lockup, it takes its toll on you and does physical, mental and emotional damage,” he says. “If this happens to anyone, I hope they're strong enough to believe in themselves, believe that it can be changed, that there can still be a bright future for you."