It had been 21 years since Thelma Dickerson had seen her father, Thomas Cress. She looked hopeful as he was escorted to his seat, facing the Michigan Parole and Commutation Board, as if maybe there would be some hint of recognition on his face when he looked at the crowd of two dozen people who gathered at the G. Robert Cotton Correctional Facility hearing room.
There wasn’t even a hint that he recognized anyone at all; he hasn’t had a visitor, aside from lawyers, since 1992.
Yet he told the board during the hearing that if not for his children, Thelma and her brother and her sister, he wouldn’t even be asking for clemency.
Accused and convicted of the Feb. 2, 1983, rape and murder of 17-year-old Patricia Rosansky, Cress has served 26 years for the murder he has always said he did not commit.
The Michigan Innocence Clinic has been working on his parole, though even co-director David Moran said what would be better is if Cress could have been granted a new trial. And a couple of times he could have been. First, in 1999, when the trial court agreed to grant him a new trial, but later reversed. And then again in 2003 when the Michigan Supreme Court reversed a Court of Appeals decision to grant a new trial.
Moran said that evidence surfaced after Cress’ conviction which could have exonerated him — including the recanted statements of key witnesses that had testified against him, and investigation which turned up another suspect Michael Ronning who has confessed to committing the murder. Unfortunately, DNA evidence from the crime scene was destroyed just as Ronning surfaced in the case, Moran said.
Besides Moran and clinic co-director Bridget McCormack, Cress has allies — some of them surprising — who are asking for his parole. Two former police officers from Battle Creek spoke in favor of Cress’ application, and Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., sent a letter to the committee, explaining that it’s Cress’ case which led him to sponsor the 2004 Innocence Protection Act, which prohibits the destruction of DNA evidence as long as the accused or convicted person is is still incarcerated.
Of course, there were impassioned pleas to the board, begging to keep Cress in prison for his entire life sentence.
Rosansky’s brother and sister-in-law urged the board to put an end to their nightmare, and resolve to keep Cress locked up. And Calhoun County Prosecutor Susan Mladenoff said that Ronning was a false confessor.
Without being able to link Ronning to Rosansky’s murder, there is no reason to consider clemency for Cress because he is indeed guilty, said former assistant prosecutor Nancy Mullett.
After 26 years in prison, Cress said he no longer cares much if he is released.
“I’m just telling you I’m not guilty,” he said. “I don’t care if I get out. My kids care, but I don’t … Ain’t nobody care about being locked up after 26 years because that’s their life.”