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Brothers 'elated' to be free, thanks to Facebook

By the CNN Wire Staff
updated 5:32 AM EDT, Fri August 17, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Raymond, Timothy Highers say they were in the neighborhood the night a drug dealer was killed
  • A witness said he saw them enter a house about when a shot was fired
  • Brothers were given life and for nearly 25 years they have insisted they are innocent
  • A chance Facebook encounter led to testimony that prompted a judge to order a new trial

(CNN) -- Two brothers who were released from prison Monday after nearly 25 years say their convictions were based on mistaken identity.

Raymond and Thomas Highers, appearing on "Erin Burnett OutFront" on Thursday, said they were in the neighborhood the 1987 night a drug dealer was killed in a Detroit home.

But not only was a witness wrong about them being the men fleeing from the house, those two men weren't the killers either, one of the brothers said.

"They were more or less victims themselves of the crime and were told at gunpoint to leave," Raymond Highers told CNN. "We were mistaken for those young, white men."

After Facebook posts lead to new trial, convicted brothers granted bond

Facebook helps free brothers from jail

The brothers were granted bond after a chance Facebook encounter led to new testimony from a man who says he was one of those two white teens who were at the house to buy drugs that night.

John Hielscher, a teenager at the time of the killing, said in an affidavit that he went to the house with friends to buy marijuana and had a gun put to his head by a group of four or five young, African-American men, the Detroit Free Press reported.

"I can remember it as if it was yesterday. It was almost up to my head," Hielscher said in a recent interview with the newspaper. "The gunman said, "Get the f--- out of here."

As they were running away, they heard a shot, he said. Fearing repercussions, he put the night behind him.

A former roommate, Kevin Zieleniewski, contacted Hielscher after he had a 2009 Facebook exchange with a woman who posted about the Highers being in prison.

Their 1988 convictions were based partly on the testimony of a witness who saw two men go into the house and run out after a gunshot, said Valerie Newman, Thomas Highers' attorney. That led authorities to presume they were the killers and they were the Highers.

With the new testimony "those presumptions are evaporated," she said. "The prosecution has absolutely no case."

Asked if the brothers, born 11 months apart and now 46, knew the men who allegedly were the killers, Timothy Highers said, "Absolutely not. We got embroiled in it just by being in the neighborhood that night basically."

The Highers await a new trial after Wayne County Court Judge Lawrence Talon threw out their life sentences in July. A pretrial hearing is set for August 29.

Under Michigan state law, a judge must review an inmate's conduct in prison before release, even if the inmate's conviction is set aside. On Monday, the Highers' former warden and a clinical psychologist testified on the brothers' behalf at a bond hearing.

Carol Howes, former warden of the Lakeland Correctional Facility, where the brothers were periodically incarcerated, said she believes they're innocent.

"I've known them for over a decade. I've never known them to lie to me about anything," Howes told CNN. "They have consistently said that they were innocent."

The brothers went home Monday after posting bond.

"We're feeling very happy and elated," Thomas Highers said Thursday. "The last few days have been like a whirlwind ... meeting new family and getting to know everybody once again."

The Wayne County Prosecutor's Office is appealing the granting of a new trial.

CNN's Julia Greenberg contributed to this report.

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