"It Opened Our Eyes"

How the paths of two very different families crossed to cheer the release of a wrongly convicted man.

Earlier this month, Wayne County, Michigan Circuit Judge Timothy Kenny threw out the murder conviction of Dwayne Provience, who had been convicted for a 2000 drug-related murder in downtown Detroit. After nine-and-a-half years in prison, Provience was released on $500 bond. Prosecutors are now deciding whether to retry him. Provience's mother watched from the courtroom as Kenny announced his decision. She was overcome when she realized her son would be freed. "It's already Christmas," Vonzella Battle told a local television station. "It's the holidays for me right now."

There was another elated parent in the courtroom that morning as well. Steve Cheolas, 54, made the trip into the city from the suburban town of Harper Woods to watch his son Nick, a third-year law student at the University of Michigan, help win Provience's release as a volunteer for the school's Innocence Clinic. The younger Cheolas handled the clinic's investigation of the police and prosecutors who worked on Provience's case, a critical component to Provience's argument for a new trial. "I've always been proud of Nick," the elder Cheolas says. "But I'm particularly proud of the work he's doing for the Innocence Clinic. To see those family members with joy written all over their faces, well, it just made me feel good."

The two families couldn't be more different. Provience is black, and comes from a poor family in downtown Detroit. The Cheolases are white, an upper-middle class family from the suburbs. But a shared experience put the two parents in the courtroom that morning: Both have felt the brunt end of a flawed criminal justice system. It was after witnessing his own parents' five-year battle with local law enforcement that Nick Cheolas developed an interest in criminal law. That moved him to get involved with the Innocence Clinic after enrolling in law school. And that's how, with his dad looking on, he had the opportunity to help deliver Vonzella Battle's early Christmas present.

"I had always been brought up to be trusting of authority, trusting of the criminal justice system," Nick says. "Anyone who has the sort of experience my family had will never trust it again. And it's one thing for it to happen to my family. These weren't felonies, and we had the resources to fight back. But when you think about the people most in need of police protection, how it can happen to them. When they can't trust law enforcement, the criminal justice system as a whole fails."

It all began on April 24, 2004, when Steve and Candice Cheolas, 58, threw a surprise birthday party for their 15-year-old daughter. The family says that several of the teens smuggled alcohol into the party without their knowledge. One girl became intoxicated, eventually requiring hospitalization. Her parents called the police.

"The actual encounter with the police that night was about as uneventful as something like that could be," says Nick, who was a freshman in college at the time. "Everyone was friendly. It was a couple weeks later, when we started seeing the police reports with obviously false statements in them, that we realized we were going to have problems."

Steve and Candice Cheolas were charged with controlling a social gathering where alcohol was consumed by minors, a crime that requires both knowledge and acceptance of the minors' consumption. They were also charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor. Additionally, Candice Cheolas was charged with obstructing a police officer.

"If you look at the depositions, none of the kids said my parents knew there was drinking going on," Nick says. "They said they snuck alcohol in their pants, or were hiding in the bathroom to drink. The police said my parents were drunk and smelled of alcohol. That's just a lie. My parents don't drink in the home, except for maybe a glass of wine with Christmas dinner."

The Cheolases eventually discovered that the police officers who came to their home that night had written two sets of reports, and there were major discrepancies between the two drafts. The second drafts included damning information about the Cheolases that was nowhere to be found in the initial reports. They also discovered the officers were wearing microphones on their uniforms that connected to the dash cam on their patrol cars. The audio recordings captured by those microphones would eventually vindicate the family in court.

"The police reports attributed 28 separate statements to my mother that made her seem drunk, belligerent and confrontational. Of those 28, only one benign statement actually shows up in the audio. Everyone lied after the fact. The police, the paramedics, the parents of the girl who got drunk. The tapes show that," Nick says. The police reports also allege that when officers attempted to enter the home, Candice Cheolas repeatedly screamed at them and blocked their access to the doorway—the reason for the obstruction charge. But the audio tapes show she wasn't even outside when the officers entered the home, and bear no evidence of screaming. All of which is why the prosecution took the unusual step of trying to prevent the police department's own audio tapes from being admitted into evidence.

Why would police produce false reports when they know the entire incident was recorded?  "I really don't know," Nick says. "I guess they figured they're cops, so what the hell is going to happen to them? And you know what? They're right. They've gotten away with it."

Candice Cheolas was finally tried in January 2006. The prosecution called 28 witnesses. When the state rested its case, Macomb County District Judge Walter Jakubowski, Jr. ordered a directed verdict in favor of the defendant. Candice Cheolas didn't even need to put on a defense.

Directed verdicts are rare, issued only in cases where the state has utterly failed to make its case. But anyone who listened to Judge Jakubwoski during the trial might have seen it coming. Jubowski was openly scornful of the prosecution throughout the trial, at one point stating that he was "infuriated" and "fed up" with the state's tactics. When the city prosecutor tried to recall a police officer to the witness stand to clarify after he'd been shown to have given false testimony, Jubowski sarcastically asked if the state planned to have the officer go home "to polish his testimony" first. He once asked the prosecutor if his aim was to "crucify" Candice Cheolas. At another point he bluntly asked the city attorney, "There's prosecution, and there's persecution. Which are we doing here?"

Candice Cheolas' victory in criminal court gave the family some vindication, but they still chafe at the lack of accountability. "No one involved in all of this has ever been sanctioned or punished in any way," Nick says. Steve adds, "They could do it again if they wanted. And they'd get away with it again." The Cheolases estimate that the ordeal has cost them just under a million dollars. Last month, a federal district court judge threw out their civil rights lawsuit against the city, the police, and the prosecutors. They plan to appeal. The city, meanwhile, has since filed a motion asking the court to force the family to pay the city's legal expenses.

Nick Cheolas sees parallels between his family's case and Provience's. "In both cases you have police and prosecutors making major mistakes, and not by accident. People messed up, and they messed up on purpose. In Dwayne's case, they not only had evidence that he was innocent, the same prosecutor's office argued in a separate case that two other men committed the same murder. They never told Dwayne's attorneys."

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  • ||

    The article about the city's attempt to recover from the Cheolas family is insane. It states as fact that Mrs. Cheolas refused to let the emergency personnel into the house. Doesn't question any of the police statements. Disgusting article.

    Otherwise a heartwarmer for once from Mr. Balko, but there's still gotta be something in there that ruins my day.

  • ||

    The hack is parroting public officials and calling it reporting.

  • ||

    Re: Andrew,

    Disgusting article [from the Detroit Free Press].

    Agreed - it was just terrible. Repeating the lie that Ms. Cheolas refused to let the emergency personnel into her house reeks of calumny - it just shows the shoddy work many so-called "journalists" have been known for recently.

  • Scott||

    Kinda odd that the comments section for that article is locked, and the "Letter to the Editor" link doesn't work right either. I guess reporter Christina Hall doesn't want to hear about the facts in this case either.

    So the city's cops, paramedics, and prosecutors tried to frame this family. Thank God they failed, even though they apparently suffered no consequences for their lying. And now they're suing the family to make them pay for the smear job? That is simply outrageous. The city should be falling all over themselves apologizing for their corrupt police force and prosecutor's office. But I'm sure this is an isolated incident, and an internal investigation found no wrongdoing on the part of the Harper Woods PD. Amirite?

  • ||

    The guy looks guilty to me.

  • Jonas||

    Wow, it's sad that THIS gets described as a "heartwarmer". But, relative to Balko's other posts, it really is. Still a bunch of shitty crap we should never have to hear about in the first place because it should never happen in the first place.

  • IceTrey||

    I agree that article is appalling. Just another case of MSM propaganda.

  • ||

    The Cheolases eventually discovered that the police officers who came to their home that night had written two sets of reports, and there were major discrepancies between the two drafts.

    I find it disturbing that, if this is true, the police officers were not charged with perjury, since they have to sign their reports. Police reports are considered evidence in a trial.

  • CaptainSmartass||

    I note that you didn't say you find it "surprising" about the two reports. It shouldn't be, this kind of thing happens all the time.

  • Warty||

    I had a lovely fantasy of being the judge in either of these cases, and holding the police and district attorneys in contempt of court for being lying shitbags. There have to be some examples of that happening, right?

  • LarryA||

    If only.

    Balco could write a book of "If you haven't done anything wrong you don't have anything to worry about" stories, only no one would be strong enough to pick it up.

  • ||

    The judge seemed pretty pissed off, unfortunately, as a judge you'd be as impotent as this judge apparently was.

    Unless the prosecutor who was suborning the perjury wants to bring the perjury chargers(HA!) then the judge can't do shit but throw the case out, which he did.

  • Cliché Bandit||

    Mr. Balko, a suggestion. For X-mas I would like nothing but a week on solid, good, upbeat, comuppance type reports from your desk. Ones where victims get their justice, corrupt politicians, police, prosecutors get their penance. I want just one week without wnating to poke my eyes out with ethernet cables. Just one week where every article lowers my blood pressure and makes me think of bunnys and rainbows. Just one week, that is all I ask. I understand that there is very little time to make this happen and there may not even be enough good stories out there in which case...lie to me. It's x-mas for craps sake...Just lie. I think many of us would feel better for that week.

    As usually, yours is some of the best reporting ever and I commend your efforts. Keep up the work but do try to make it "good".

    For want of a spoon

  • Kroneborge||

    *this, lol

  • ||

    Haha. First of all, no it's not x-mas yet. It's not even thanksgiving yet. Please stop perpetuating that cultural lie.

    Also, yeah we'd all like to read nice criminal justice stories from Radley. Unfortunately a solid week of them would probably require Radley to become a fiction writer.

  • Stretchy||

    Eye twitching... fist clenching.... I wonder if the hospitalized girl's parents are somehow connected to the town muckety-mucks. Something like, "Our precious, innocent daughter got drunk and embarrassed us so, someone has to pay."

  • Jonas||

    Did anyone read the comments on the article Balko linked to about Provience? Here's the first comment:

    "Her son headed home to enjoy a meal he has spent years looking forward to eating.
    "My momma's spaghetti. She cooks the best spaghetti," Provience said."

    After discovering an empty Ragu jar hidden in the trash, Dwayne bashed his momma in the head with it just before shanking his grandmother with the sharpened handle of a sauce ladle that he hid in his rectum just prior to dessert.

    Someone hears that a man wrongfully convicted of a crime gets set loose from jail and then assumes that really he's probably just a murderous psycho who deserved to be locked up in the first place.

    Damn you gotta love America's faith in the criminal justice system, don't ya?

  • Michael Ejercito||

    And why are we supposed to trust the government to run health care?

  • ReAnimator||

    Because if you don't you're a right wing nut job who spits on the poor and hates brown children?

  • ReAnimator||

    Because if you don't you're a right wing nut job who spits on the poor and hates brown children?

  • Steve Verdon||

    So the city's cops, paramedics, and prosecutors tried to frame this family. Thank God they failed, even though they apparently suffered no consequences for their lying. And now they're suing the family to make them pay for the smear job? That is simply outrageous. The city should be falling all over themselves apologizing for their corrupt police force and prosecutor's office. But I'm sure this is an isolated incident, and an internal investigation found no wrongdoing on the part of the Harper Woods PD. Amirite?

    Guys...this is taking place in Detroit. Detroit. A city that is so...utterly fucked up it is hard to imagine. Reminds me of a line from Aliens,

    "Nuke the site from orbit, its the only way to be sure."

  • ||

    No, it's taking place in Harper Woods. The column you're posting a comment on even directly states it's in the suburbs.

  • ||

    Pretty sure that line transcended it's movie quote status and became an official internet meme in the past 5 or so years.

  • ||

    Sorry, shoulda said "half the dialogue in that movie" not "that line"

  • Robert||

    At first I read it as "Provience, who had been convicted for 2,000 drug-related murders"!

  • robc||

    Ditto.

  • JGR||

    You thought he had gone to prison for being with the DEA . . ?

  • Mark Lambert||

    Great article, Radley. Keep up the good work.

  • ||

    No doubt about it. The US Kangaroo Court system is a big JOKE!

    RT
    www.online-privacy.at.tc

  • Motive?||

    What is the motive to frame the Cheolas family here? The Cheolas version of events sounds sketchy.

  • IceTrey||

    "The Cheolas version of events sounds sketchy."

    Which is exactly why after 28 prosecution witnesses the judge threw the case out without any defense. Don't forget the whole thing was audio recorded and supports their story.

  • ||

    Cheolas family held a party for kids to drink. No dispute about underage kid having .18 BA and hospital trip, right? State screwed up here trying to get these people just punishment for their illegal behavior. Cheolas' won, justice system works. Except they still suck as parents - let's not hoist them up as victims. They weren't convicted of anything, doesn't mean they didn't do something wrong and they still suck as parents. Moral of story for Cheolas-types: don't allow alcohol parties for under-agers and society will avoid the expense of trying (incompetently in this case) to maintain order and safety of citizens.

  • ||

    "Cheolas family held a party for kids to drink." No: RTFA.

    "State screwed up here" == "State agents' perjury failed".

    "Cheolas' won, justice system works" == "Cheolas' out $1M, perjurers free to try try again".

  • ||

    and I hope they do !

  • ||

    As was made clear to those of us with a reading comprehension above that of a sixth grader, the parents did not know that teens at the party had snuck in alcohol until one of them got drunk. Since their child was not the one getting drunk, it sounds like they aren't the parents that suck.

    I'd really like to know how, in your twisted little world, having kids sneak in alcohol is the same thing as "allowing alcohol parties for under-agers."

  • Beezard||

    Even if the parents DID supply the alcohol, I'd still be all for them so long as "teen aged" meant 18 and older.

    (I realize the law and the other kids parents might not agree with me...I'm just trying to flesh out another moral delineation to the supposed monstrosity that the cops felt they had to lie for.)

  • JC||

    This is probably a trivial detail, but what was the name of the judge who presided over Mrs. Cheolas' case? I ask because it's spelled at least three different ways within the same paragraph, and I mentally trip over it each time. Given the otherwise excellent article, it's a bit distracting.

    And thanks for sharing this; it's dumbfounding that the police just blatantly lied after the initial reports.

  • ||

    "No one involved in all of this has ever been sanctioned or punished in any way," Nick says. Steve adds, "They could do it again if they wanted. And they'd get away with it again."

    Yup

  • JGR||

    ...and they WILL...

  • ||

    The cheolas family is not innocent... I worked for Candace and she is a hard core control freak that gets very much involved in her kids and their status. There is no way this self professed "cool mom" did not know what was going on in her own home. I find it absurd that the HWPD and parametics and all of the parents and teens involved conspired against them.
    Sorry Cheolas Family you are just not that special or important... You screwed up and very lucky you got off.

  • abercrombie milano||

    My only point is that if you take the Bible straight, as I'm sure many of Reasons readers do, you will see a lot of the Old Testament stuff as absolutely insane.

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