'It's amazing' man says after being freed from prison for robbery he didn't commit

Mack Howell spent more than seven years in prison for the armed robbery of a 7-Eleven in Eastpointe in 2014.

Last week, the 62-year-old walked out prison a free man after a Macomb County Circuit judge vacated his conviction and 25- to 50-year sentence.

“It’s amazing. Feels good. Real good,” the soft-spoken Howell said Wednesday, surrounded by family and members of the Macomb County Prosecutor’s Office and Michigan Innocence Clinic who worked on his release.

Howell’s next plans are simple: “Just to be free.”

Howell is the first person to be exonerated by the Conviction Integrity Unit of the Macomb County Prosecutor’s Office, formed last year and led by Gail Pamukov. The unit is one of a handful across Michigan.

Mack Howell, 62, center, wipes tears March 29, 2023 as he discusses his 25- to 50-year sentence in a 2014 armed robbery being vacated by a Macomb County Circuit judge and being released from prison earlier this month in the first exoneration by the Conviction Integrity Unit of the Macomb County Prosecutor's Office.
Mack Howell, 62, center, wipes tears March 29, 2023 as he discusses his 25- to 50-year sentence in a 2014 armed robbery being vacated by a Macomb County Circuit judge and being released from prison earlier this month in the first exoneration by the Conviction Integrity Unit of the Macomb County Prosecutor's Office.

The real robber was taller and thinner

“The thing about Mr. Howell’s case that’s interesting is that Mr. Howell always maintained his innocence. He never wavered,” Pamukov said. “From his first interview with police, he said: ‘I didn’t do it.’”

The Michigan Innocence Project at the University of Michigan Law School began reinvestigating the case on Howell’s behalf in 2018.

Pamukov said she began the process of reviewing the case in April 2022. There were discrepancies found, she said, including the height and build of the robber and Howell.

The robber of the 7-Eleven on 10 Mile Road on April 3, 2014, was taller and had a thinner build. The robber's identity was obscured by black clothing with only his eyes showing.

There were reports the robber ran. Howell had medical issues that prevented him from running. Authorities said he used a cane at that time, and Howell had one Wednesday during a news conference in the prosecutor's office.

Pamukov said that after many months, those reviewing the case learned about a serial armed robber in the southern end of Macomb County who fit the description of this particular robbery suspect. The robberies occurred at 7-Elevens from April-August 2014, information not presented at the time of Howell’s jury trial in 2016.

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Mack Howell, in gray suit, talks March 29, 2023 with Darryl Woods, whose sentence in Wayne County was commuted by former Gov. Rick Snyder and who now serves on the Michigan Appellate Defender Commission. Howell's 25- to 50-year sentence in a 2014 armed robbery was vacated earlier this month by a Macomb County Circuit judge.
Mack Howell, in gray suit, talks March 29, 2023 with Darryl Woods, whose sentence in Wayne County was commuted by former Gov. Rick Snyder and who now serves on the Michigan Appellate Defender Commission. Howell's 25- to 50-year sentence in a 2014 armed robbery was vacated earlier this month by a Macomb County Circuit judge.

'We need to learn from mistakes that were made'

“The evidence just didn’t stack up,” Pamukov said.

Circuit Judge Edward Servitto vacated the conviction and sentence March 20.

The Michigan Innocence Clinic posted on social media after Howell's release that Howell was the 41st victory for the clinic in its 14-year history.

The serial robber was convicted separately. Prosecutor Peter Lucido said authorities believe that person is out of prison and his office is reviewing whether to file charges in the Eastpointe case.

Lucido said the justice system “is not a perfect system. But to make it perfect, we need to learn from mistakes that were made. And it’s not at the expense of someone’s life or liberty. Those who have been wronged, we make it right.”

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Pamukov said 32,000 people are in prison in Michigan, with an estimated 2% to 5% of them actually being innocent of the crime for which they were sentenced.

She said her office has received 50 to 60 applications for convictions to review. The process takes months just to gather documents, conduct an investigation and determine whether there is validity to show a conviction is wrong.

But for Howell and his family, his nearly 11-month wait during that process was worth it.

“We kept tryin’ to fight for him, fight for him over and over again,” Howell’s nephew Dwayne Howell said. “He was walkin’ us through every step of the way. He was fightin’ for his innocence. We was happy to get him out.”

Contact Christina Hall: chall@freepress.com. Follow her on Twitter: @challreporter.

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This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: 'It's amazing' says man freed from prison for robbery he didn't commit