On n Nov. 2, 2011, Darell Chancellor arrived home from work about 6 p.m., the usual time. That was nice — having a usual time, a home to come home to with a wife and baby son waiting.
After seven years in prison, he knew one thing: He did not want to go back, not to prison and not to his previous life of selling drugs. While locked up and bouncing around Michigan prisons, he began to make some changes. He earned his GED diploma and exchanged letters with an old friend, Katrice.
Through those letters, she became his girlfriend, and then his fiancee. They were married in the prison, in the visitation room, the ceremony squeezed into regular visiting hours. They said their vows, they kissed, and Chancellor went back to his cell.
When he was released, he moved in with Katrice and her two sons, and soon they had a son of their own. They named him Darell Jr.
“Life was good, because I had a plan and I knew what I was going to do,” he says now, sitting at his mother’s dining room table and speaking in his low, gravelly voice. “I didn’t want to be out of my son’s life.”
His own father had been absent much of his life, disappearing for a few years before “popping up” here and there, leaving Chancellor to grow up with a single mother in an impoverished neighborhood on Detroit’s southwest side. He saw drugs; he saw guns. Crime was a fact of life, and drugs were simply a way people in his corner of the world made money. Before long, it was how he made money, too.
“It’s hard to see people making money when your mother is struggling. It’s hard not to get involved,” he says.
He was first busted for drugs as a teen, for marijuana. Over the following years, he racked up three convictions for selling heroin. Then he robbed another drug dealer at gunpoint and went away for seven years. Sometime while he was away, working toward his GED certificate and writing letters to Katrice, his own father, somewhere in another prison, died.
But now that was behind him. He had his new life, his new family. He worked at a local market stocking shelves. He didn’t make much money, but it was honest money. He left in the morning, came home in the evening. He watched television with Katrice and held Darell Jr. He met with his parole officer every two weeks. Life had a routine, a rhythm, and, if all went to plan, a future.
That future was not completely up to him, and he knew it from experience. On April 22, 2002, not long before being sent away for the armed robbery, Chancellor was sitting in the passenger seat of a friend’s car when they were stopped by former Detroit police officer William Melendez, also known as RoboCop because of the robotic way he reportedly walked when he was on duty.
Chancellor and his friend recognized him and got out of the car “because it was RoboCop,” Chancellor would later testify.
Melendez and two other officers arrested them and claimed they’d found guns inside the car and in a nearby yard. According to court documents, Chancellor said he argued with Melendez about the gun and Melendez told him to “‘shut the F up’ before he put some dope on me, too.”
In his previous convictions, Chancellor pleaded guilty or no contest. If he did it, he says, he owned up to it.
This time, though, he fought, spending 213 days in jail before his case was dismissed on Nov. 26, 2002. One of the three officers finally came clean, admitting he had knowingly signed a bogus police report claiming they found the guns on Chancellor and his friends. Chancellor got out, sued the department, and was awarded $250,000. By the time he won, he was in prison, and the money mostly went back to the state for his time served.
After that experience, and then prison, he was careful, he says. He made complete stops at stop signs. Made sure always to use his turn signals. Never missed a parole meeting.
As he arrived home from work that evening in November 2011, the phone rang. It was his mother. No surprise there. They talked often, and he visited often. But this time she sounded different, panicked.
The police were at her house, she said, and they were looking for him.
Chancellor is part of a growing population of formerly incarcerated people who have been exonerated — that is, found innocent of the crimes for which they were convicted.
According to the National Registry of Exonerations, 3,248 people have been exonerated since 1989 nationwide. In 2022 alone, 233 people were exonerated, including 16 from Michigan, the second highest number for a state (Illinois is No. 1 with 126). In the registry’s 2022 report on race and wrongful convictions, the authors point out that while Black people make up about 13 percent of the U.S. population, they account for about 53 percent of all exonerees.
Once released, former inmates continue to face difficulties. According to a 2022 study from Maryland’s Towson University about mental health among wrongly convicted individuals, “about half of exonerees have post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. The length of the time served, according to the report, has little impact on the level of trauma a person experiences.
These people, the study states, “frequently witnessed and/or experienced traumatic events while incarcerated (e.g., physical and/or sexual assault) and continued to face many adversities even after their release from prison — including but not limited to physical and/or mental illness, strained social relationships, unemployment, poverty, homelessness, and sleep disorders.”
When he received the phone call from his mother in 2011, Chancellor was confused. He says he didn’t know why the cops would be there and that he would have gone over there right then, but his car was in the shop, forcing him to catch rides from cousins or take a taxi to get to and from work. Instead, his mother put a police officer on the phone. After a few minutes, they hung up, and she called him again later that night, telling him the police were gone. She was a little shaken up, but calmer now, and told him what happened.
She’d been sitting at her dining room table while a friend and local handyman worked on her porch door. He’d turned to her and told her the police were coming up the steps. Then they were inside, guns drawn, she says, and telling her and her handyman to get on the floor.
Janet Chancellor is a woman who takes very little crap from anyone. She says she refused to get on the floor and asked them why they were there and said that if they wanted to look around her house, they had better have a search warrant. As she remembers it, the police told her they didn’t need a search warrant, but they had one. It claimed that Sgt. Stephen Geelhood, who led the raid, had seen a man selling heroin off her front porch. They wanted to know where Chancellor was.
One of the officers, a woman, Janet says, told her she didn’t have to get on the floor and allowed her to sit back in her chair at the dining room table while they searched the house, tossing aside couch cushions, emptying closets and drawers.
One officer returned from upstairs with two guns and what Janet describes as a “white, clear bag.” It was heroin, she says the cop told her, about $250,000 worth.
They asked about Chancellor. Janet says she told them he didn’t live there and that they’d found the bag in her daughter’s room (Geelhood claimed in court that Janet told them Darell lived upstairs). Police reported they’d found it in a hamper full of men’s clothes. At some point, they had her call her son and put him on the phone. According to both Chancellor and his mom, Geelhood said that unless Chancellor could give information on someone else who could be arrested for drugs, Geelhood was going to arrest him for the heroin.
It’s a technique often used by narcotics cops — you catch a drug dealer, then turn them into an informant so you can catch more drug dealers. That, Geelhood would later testify, was what led them to Chancellor’s house in the first place. But Chancellor says he was done with drugs. He didn’t have a name to give.
Chancellor went over the next morning. Janet had been cleaning, but the place was still a mess, with clothes and other items strewn all over the floor.
He helped her clean. They talked about it. It was strange, scary. Then … nothing. They never heard another word from the police. It never came up in a meeting with Chancellor’s parole officer. Life resumed. He continued with his plan.
It lasted six months.
On May 2, 2012, Chancellor was driving when he saw the familiar, scary blue-and-red lights flashing behind him. He pulled over and gave the officer his information, and when the cop returned, he told Chancellor there was a warrant for his arrest. Chancellor was confused — that couldn’t be right. For one, he hadn’t been arrested for anything. He’d seen his parole officer just that morning. If he had a warrant, he was pretty sure it would have come up then.
Chancellor was arrested and taken to jail, and he learned what was up. It all went back to the night in November, six months before, when the police had raided his mother’s house and seized, according to the police report, a bag of crack cocaine, two pistols, one rifle, and “proof of residence” in the form of a letter addressed to Chancellor.
That raid was based on a search warrant affidavit Geelhood had filled out, in which he stated that he’d witnessed suspected drug deals going down while surveilling the house after receiving a tip that drugs were being sold there. He testified that he’d parked 300 to 400 feet away and observed the interior of the house through a pair of binoculars; he claimed he saw three people go inside and “converse with an individual sitting inside the house,” according to court records.
Geelhood described Chancellor as 5 foot 8, 180 pounds, and of “medium build.” At the time of the trial, Chancellor was about 5 feet, 11 inches and weighed about 250. He also wore glasses, needing a heavy prescription, which was not in Geelhood’s description.
And besides, Chancellor says, he wasn’t selling drugs. Not from his mother’s house, not anywhere.
It seemed like an easy case to fight, which perhaps was why his then-attorney didn’t call his mother to the stand; or his sister, who was then living upstairs where police said they found the drugs; or his wife, whom he was living with at the time.
Judge Dan Hathaway said the entire case came down to the reliability of Geelhood’s identification of Chancellor. Geelhood testified that he had never made a mistake in identifying someone and that Chancellor was who he’d seen selling drugs.
Hathaway sentenced Chancellor to 171 months — a little over 14 years — in prison.
“It felt terrible,” Chancellor says, remembering the moment he was sentenced, about to be locked up now for the second time for something he didn’t do.
“It’s like the justice system failed you. You’ve been taught to believe in the justice system,” he says. It left him wondering, “Where is the justice going to come from?”
From the moment he was locked up, he fought his case. It was a difficult and lonely task, obtaining all his court records and related information and filing documents via mail — and all essentially in secret. Aside from the phone conversations and visits he had with his mother and wife, he could never talk about his case. He kept his documents stashed away in his footlocker. If any other inmate knew about his case, that could be enough for the inmate to construct a believable lie that could be exchanged with authorities to make a deal.
A few details are all it takes even to make a lie convincing, and when years of your life are on the line, lying, for plenty of inmates, is worth it.
Logistics, though, were the least of his problems. One cellmate, or “bunkie,” started a fight with him every single night for six months.
Another would stand in front of Chancellor in the middle of the night and masturbate. When he wasn’t in his cell or filing documents in the library, Chancellor worked in the prison as a porter — he cleaned the toilets, often having to wait outside, he says, until he heard the noises of men having sex subside and they left the bathroom. Then he would enter and clean up feces, blood, and semen.
He had been to prison before, seen and dealt with the same kinds of things. But the first time, he says, was different in that he understood why he was there.
“I was being punished for what I’d done,” he says. “I couldn’t argue with that.” Being locked up for something he didn’t do, though, was harder, much harder. Staying focused on his case, he says, helped him get through it.
He first worked with an attorney through the State Appellate Defender Office, taking his case to the Michigan Court of Appeals. They argued that he’d had insufficient representation at his first trial, citing that Chancellor’s family members were never called to the stand. They also called into question the drugs themselves, which, when presented at trial, were no longer in their original solid form but had become a “smelly liquid.”
In 2014, the court released its opinion, pointing out that despite Chancellor having bills and other housing records to show he’d been living with his wife, his parole officer still had his address listed as his mother’s house — and there was that hamper where the drugs were found, full of male clothing. Geelhood had also testified that he’d seen the same vehicle parked at both residences.
Chancellor says he kept his mother’s address on file on purpose. He liked his parole officer and she was near his work, and he didn’t want to get assigned to another one by saying he lived across town. But the court upheld the original ruling based on “constructive possession,” a legal term that means a person does not have to be in the physical presence of something for it to be legally considered theirs.
The judges said there was “sufficient evidence” to link Chancellor to his mother’s house as well as the drugs and denied the appeal. One of the three judges, Douglas B. Shapiro, a former defense attorney who’d worked with the State Appellate Defender Office, dissented, writing in his opinion that there was not enough evidence in Chancellor’s trial to prove the drugs were his.
“Accordingly, I would reverse defendant’s decision and remand for a new trial,” he wrote.
When he wasn’t working on his case, Chancellor was calling his mother. Janet laughs at the memory now, how he would call her sometimes five times a day, just to see what was going on. He called so often there was often nothing to update him on. But she would tell him what she could, about her life, about the family, and about his son, whom she helped look after.
In 2015, his case went before the Michigan Supreme Court, which also denied his appeal.
After that, Chancellor was on his own. He got copies of all the documents he needed from his former attorney. Some, like the search warrant affidavit his entire case hinged on, he knew by heart. He spent hours at the law library learning more about the legal system — about the next steps he could take, how to properly format documents, the language he needed to use. There was a clerk at the library who could help, but only so much. Chancellor calls it a “catch-22” because while there were people who could help him, he still couldn’t trust anyone enough to open up to them about his case.
In September of 2015, he filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus, a process similar to an appeal but which invokes a constitutional right to be brought before the federal court, claiming he was wrongfully imprisoned. In his careful print, Chancellor wrote to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan in Detroit that there was insufficient evidence to convict him and that he “was denied the effective assistance of trial counsel.”
Then, again, he waited. Meanwhile, the threads of the life he’d stitched together — his plan for the future, everything he was fighting to come home to — were beginning to fray. He had only seen his son, who was a year old when he went away, a handful of times in the last three years.
“I asked,” Chancellor says. “I wanted to see him, but, you know, she had other plans.”
After a couple of years, Katrice stopped visiting completely. In 2016, they divorced.
“I’m not mad at her,” Chancellor says. “To this day, I’m not mad at her.”
He appealed, one last time, to the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati. This was the end of the line. If he was denied here, that would be it. There would be no more appeals. Chancellor waited for the letter to come. In 2017, it came. He was denied.
That was it. At least for the courts.
Valerie Newman has built a life and reputation out of proving people wrong. As an attorney, she worked with the State Appellate Defender Office for over 20 years, arguing in the Michigan Court of Appeals and Michigan Supreme Court, as well as the U.S. Supreme Court twice, and was responsible for a number of overturned convictions, among them those of a man who’d been wrongly convicted of quadruple homicide at 14 and two brothers who spent 25 years in prison for a murder they did not commit.
In late 2017, Newman left her career as a defense attorney to join the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office, but she was not switching teams — quite the opposite, in fact. Newman was joining a newly formed Conviction Integrity Unit, part of a growing trend of similar units started by prosecutors who wanted to make sure that the convictions they’d made over the years weren’t faulty.
Kym Worthy, the Wayne County prosecutor and founder of the Wayne County CIU, says there are some CIUs “in name only” and that she hired Newman in part because it “would give us instant credibility that we wanted a real CIU.”
In 2018, shortly after joining the CIU, Newman led the department to its first exoneration. Richard Phillips, then 71 years old, had been wrongly convicted of murder decades before. He’d been locked up for 45 years. Through 2022, the CIU has exonerated, dismissed, or secured a new trial for 35 cases, resulting in more than 536 years taken from prison sentences.
Not long after Chancellor lost his last chance at an appeal, Newman received two letters about Chancellor — one from him and one from his mother. Chancellor had heard about the CIU from other inmates and wrote in about his case. One last shot.
Of all the cases the Wayne County CIU has overturned, only three are related to drugs. That’s because drug charges are harder to deal with.
In a 2022 deposition, Newman said that with narcotics cases, there are not always “clear-cut ways to show innocence.” In Chancellor’s case, for example, she pointed to the drugs found at the house. Were the drugs planted? Did they belong to somebody else? Those are difficult, if not impossible, questions to answer. (Citing pending litigation involving Chancellor, Newman declined to be interviewed for this story.)
But when she looked into Chancellor’s case, she started to notice “red flags.”
That he wasn’t in the home when the drugs were found, for example, stood out to her — not impossible, of course, but worth noting. The case was also based entirely on Geelhood’s testimony and the information provided in the search warrant.
The red flags reminded her of a similar case from her first year with the CIU, that of a man named Kaycee Smith. His charges were dismissed after Newman proved that police had falsified a search warrant that led to his arrest. Geelhood was one of the officers involved in his case.
Even that case, Newman said, wasn’t clear-cut. There was plenty of evidence to link Smith to drug activity. But a falsified search warrant is a falsified search warrant. Whether he was dealing drugs or not, Smith was given a new trial and the case was dismissed.
With Chancellor, it seemed different. “From what I knew, it felt like Chancellor was not involved at all,” Newman said in the deposition.
She noted that Chancellor’s description in the search warrant didn’t match up with how he looked at the time of trial and that his conviction rested primarily on Geelhood’s testimony identifying him. There was no record Newman could find of the confidential informant who had identified Janet Chancellor’s house as a drug house. She also noted that the informant had, according to Geelhood, told him it was heroin being sold in the house, but the police report from the raid said they’d found crack cocaine. There was also the odd six-month gap between the raid and his arrest, which Newman said “makes zero sense.”
While Newman was looking into the case, Chancellor also reached out to the Detroit Police Department’s internal affairs division and began corresponding with Timothy Ewald, who also worked with the FBI and had been part of Operation Clean Sweep, an internal investigation into Detroit’s narcotics department that revealed a pattern of corruption that included police filing false search warrant affidavits. Due to Ewald’s work, several former Detroit police officers had gone to prison for stealing drugs and money from drug dealers. He had also previously investigated Melendez (aka RoboCop) for a case unrelated to Chancellor.
When he saw the Chancellor case, Ewald noticed red flags, just as Newman had. He visited Chancellor in prison for more information.
For Chancellor, it was “a ray of hope” to talk to someone in person about his case, someone who could help him now that he’d exhausted the remedies offered by the court system.
In a 2022 deposition for Chancellor’s current lawsuit, Ewald said that after reviewing the evidence, he did believe that there was drug and firearm activity going on in Janet Chancellor’s house. He didn’t think the guns or drugs seized were planted. But he also didn’t think they were Chancellor’s. “I think he was just the fall guy for it,” Ewald said.
The Detroit Police Department did not respond to request for comment, but in a 2021 deposition, Geelhood reiterated that he had positively identified Chancellor and that he’d surveilled the house after an informant had given him a tip that drugs were being sold there. He said he had no idea at the time he’d raided the house who Chancellor was or about his history with drugs.
As for the six-month gap between the raid and Chancellor’s arrest, he said, “I truly didn’t have the time to go chasing him around the city, but we tried. We went to the location that was given us and [he] just never came across our radar again.”
At some point, Newman and Ewald found out they were both investigating the same case.
They decided there was no point in duplicating efforts, and Newman took the case on.
She corresponded with Chancellor through letters, many of them matter-of-fact, asking for details and documents. Chancellor says he wrote at least once a month, if only to check in. Newman, he says, always wrote back and was always polite, urging him to be patient.
And so, Chancellor was patient. Newman continued to build her case, and brought it before Judge Timothy Kenny. He was a judge with a reputation for fairness but was also a former prosecutor, not exactly the resume you’d hope for in overturning a conviction.
Meanwhile, Chancellor had no idea Newman was bringing the case to a judge. She’d told his mother but didn’t want to tell Chancellor lest he get his hopes up.
Kenny heard Newman out. When it came to ruling, he had options. He could uphold the original conviction — it had, after all, lost every single appeal. He could ask for more information and schedule a hearing for more testimony. Or he could look at the evidence, the same evidence that had gone through the Michigan Court of Appeals, the Michigan Supreme Court, and two federal courts, and toss the case out. It was, in the end, all down to him and the case that Chancellor and Newman had built.
Chancellor had at that point been behind bars for much of his adult life, been in more fights than he could count, lost his marriage, and missed every single one of his son’s birthdays.
On March 21, 2020, after eight years, he walked out, free.
Chancellor now lives at his mom’s house, on Detroit’s southwest side. As Christmas 2022 neared, I sat with the two of them as they recounted the night police had raided the house, at the same dining room table where Janet was sitting when it happened.
She wore a green Christmas sweater. Red bows and tinsel adorned the walls, aside from one wall in the living room, a collage and shrine dedicated to Janet’s family members, many of them gone now.
Darell Jr. was in the next room, playing on his PlayStation. Sometimes he and his dad play it together, mostly sports games similar to ones Chancellor played as a kid. “Fortnite is too advanced for me,” he says, laughing.
Janet sipped on Faygo Cola, remembering what it was like when her son finally came home, how the whole family came over, how some of his younger cousins didn’t know him at all, what it was like to finally see him with his son again.
It was a happy time, and in some ways, it still is. She’s with her son and grandson. They play cards and board games together — spades and Trouble are favorites. But it was, and remains, difficult for Chancellor. After getting out, he says he was “very paranoid.” He had trouble sleeping. Janet remembers him sitting in one place almost all day. He wouldn’t go outside.
He’s getting better, he says, but is still paranoid, still scared. He doesn’t like crowds. He still has trouble going outside sometimes, afraid that the police might be there. Geelhood is still on the force.
Chancellor says he does not believe that all police officers are bad, but he can’t trust them anymore.
Chancellor is in the middle of a lawsuit against the city of Detroit and Geelhood for his imprisonment. The Detroit Police Department told a local news station in 2022 that it is standing by Geelhood after an internal investigation, claiming the CIU got it wrong.
Once a month, Chancellor attends exoneree meetings. Newman, whom Chancellor calls his “angel,” organizes them. Sometimes there are speakers; other times, he and his “exoneree brothers” just talk, check in on one another. It helps, he says, to talk to people who have been through the same thing.
Chancellor is taking things “one day at a time.”
“I’m still adapting to what’s going on,” he says. “I’m still going through it.”
This story is from the November 2023 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. Read more in our digital edition.