'79 murder case may be reopened in convict's favor

A man serving a life sentence for a fatal fight outside a Detroit bar may get an extraordinary opportunity to return to court after nearly 35 years and win his freedom by pleading guilty to a lesser charge.
AP Wire
Dec 25, 2013

Samuel Ambrose said his rights were violated in 1979 when his attorney didn't inform him about a plea deal that would have capped his maximum prison sentence at 15 years. Instead, he went to trial at age 19, argued self-defense and was convicted of second-degree murder.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Charles Binder, who held hearings last spring, said Ambrose's case should be reopened. Prosecutors have 14 days to object to his recommendation, which was released Monday. The ultimate decision rests with U.S. District Judge Thomas Ludington in Bay City.

Ambrose claims there was a proposed deal that would require him to plead guilty to manslaughter. He has a document that refers to it, including a maximum 15-year prison sentence and the handwriting of Judge Samuel Gardner.

"The notation ... appears to indicate that a plea offer to manslaughter was made and that the judge agreed that if the plea were accepted, he would sentence (Ambrose) to between five and 15 years," Binder said.

He said making that offer again now "is the appropriate remedy."

It's been a challenge to revisit the old case. Key people — including the defense lawyer, prosecutor and two judges — are dead. Records have been destroyed. Retired police officer Raymond Frank cannot recall what happened back in 1979.

Ambrose's late attorney, Oliver Nelson, had a reputation for striking plea deals.

"He would do kind of a volume sort of business. I do not remember him as being a person in trial very often," a former prosecutor, Doug Baker, told Binder.

Ambrose, now 53, filed an appeal in federal court in 2008. It was dismissed as untimely but subsequently was revived by a federal appeals court.

"The plea offer would not have been unusual at the time since the offers were generous in order to 'crash' the docket," Binder said, referring to an effort to keep cases moving in the late 1970s.

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