Michael Farris, twenty years of age and a talented musician and composer, was jolted awake one morning by an invasion of police. They stood in the doorway of his bedroom, all but one in uniform. The man in plain clothes was a detective who had crossed the border from South Carolina into North Carolina to arrest Michael. The detective told Michael he was guilty of soliciting sex from a minor. The “minor” actually was this detective, posing as a girl of thirteen for internet chats with Michael’s Yahoo account.
It was his email address, Michael said, but he never chatted with a thirteen year-old. No one believed him.
That is the start of how Michael became an ”accidental felon”–someone falsely accused. At court Michael was represented by a public defender who told him he had no choice but to plead guilty, or face ten years in prison. By pleading, he might get probation.
Thus, Michael became a statistic, one of thousands of innocent people who plead rather than risk trial. Pleading guilty turned him into a felon, and a Registered Sex Offender. But he did get probation, and this meant Michael could try to find someone who would fight for him.
He found Gloria Wolk, author of “Accidental Felon,” a legal suspense novel about an innocent woman charged with a felony. Wolk, who is older than the grandparents who raised Michael, became involved by referral. She had offered to help several innocence groups with research and drafting of court documents. Her offer coincided with the phone calls Michael made to innocence groups across the nation, every one of which was rejected because he did not fit their parameters. He was not on death row; he was not an inmate; there was no DNA; and many innocence groups are limited to helping residents of their own state.
Michael was getting discouraged. He had filed a petition for post-conviction relief; he had new evidence; he did not know how to take the next step. He had phoned more than one hundred attorneys, but none would take his case without a sizable up-front fee. And Michael, just beginning his music career, was indigent.
What Wolk saw when she reviewed the file was a case similar to that of Brian Banks, a California high school football star who became an accidental felon and a Registered Sex Offender because of a lie. Seven years after Banks falsely plead guilty to avoid a trial that could have resulted in forty years in prison, his conviction was vacated: The girl responsible for the false charge admitted she lied.
Unlike Brian Banks, Michael’s future does not depend on someone admitting to a lie. The proof is a bundle of papers his public defender ignored. Wolk’s research began with those documents.
“I am not a lawyer,” said Wolk, “but I can do legal research. I began with questions. Finding answers took many hours, and we had little time because of filing deadlines. One question was about a detective who had an arrest warrant that limited him to South Carolina. It did not authorize him to go to another state to arrest someone who had no criminal record, who had never been indicted anywhere. Michael was not a fleeing felon, but the detective transported him across state lines to a local jail.”
If a lawyer had examined the arrest warrant, it would have been obvious that the investigating officer did not swear to any statement, and that it lacked facts to show how the emails were traced to Michael’s computer.
“After researching similar cases, I compiled a file of cases in which men convicted for this crime always used an email address created specifically for soliciting minors, never one easily identified with their names. If Michael had done this, why would he use the email address widely known to be his?”
Wolk learned about undercover investigations for internet solicitation: Detectives are required to make clear that their imposter/decoy is minor. “There is no evidence of this in the files,” said Wolk. She also learned that the crime of solicitation requires the adult to arrange a meeting with the minor. There is no evidence of this in the files.
In February, with Wolk’s help, Michael defeated the prosecutor’s motion to dismiss his petition for post-conviction relief. Then, on August 9, 2013, Michael filed a thirty-two page pleading and two dozen exhibits, asking the court to vacate his conviction. The pleading details how his Constitutional rights were repeatedly violated.
For the first time since Michael awakened to find police in the doorway of his bedroom he is excited about his future. He has an avid interest in physics, and hopes to attend college. Another goal is driving to Raleigh. Michael Farris and Gloria Wolk live at opposite ends of North Carolina and have yet to meet.
The efforts to vacate his wrongful conviction began with filing pleadings. To view the pleadings, click HERE