Truth is stranger than fiction
The wolverine — a solitary and muscular carnivore — demonstrates an outsized ferocity and strength when confronting its prey. The beast’s ability to conquer formidable opponents resonates with the Michigan alumni who embrace its power.
Investigative journalist Susan Goldsmith, BA ’83, has personified that ferocity throughout an extensive reporting career. So has criminal defense attorney Matthew McHenry, BBA ’97, who fervently believes “everyone deserves an excellent defense, guilty or innocent.”
When the universe brought these strangers together in 2009, inevitable maize-and-blue alchemy occurred to save an innocent man’s future. But, ironically, neither grad knew they shared Wolverine DNA until summer 2021.
McHenry (above, right), a law graduate of Lewis & Clark College, was five years into his career as a criminal defense attorney and still learning the nuances of Oregon criminal law in March 2009. So when he read Goldsmith’s page-one reporting in The Oregonian about a convicted felon’s harrowing experience in the state’s justice system, he was intrigued.
Goldsmith’s investigation detailed the convoluted saga of California-based attorney Brad Holbrook (above, left). He had just completed a prison sentence of six years and three months for allegedly molesting a 10-year-old girl in McMinnville, Ore., in 1999.Goldsmith reported on the gross incompetence, unchecked misconduct, and outright malfeasance by the prosecutor and defense attorney in Holbrook’s case. Her story landed about a year after Holbrook’s parole. For McHenry, it illuminated appalling cracks in a flawed Oregon system.
“It was clear to me that [Holbrook] was innocent, but even if he weren’t, there were all kinds of reasons to fight in this case,” McHenry says. “You could teach it in law school as a case study in a criminal procedure class about how things should not go.”
One aspect of Goldsmith’s reporting jumped right off the page. When Holbrook’s first trial ended with a hung jury, four of the jurors filed sworn statements expressing concern about the conduct of county prosecutor Carroll Tichenor. Later, when he was released from prison, another juror from the original trial invited Holbrook to live with him and his wife in their home.
“That’s something I never heard before,” says McHenry.
It was clear Holbrook could use an effective ally in the system. And McHenry had been thinking about pro bono work. So he phoned The Oregonian and asked for Goldsmith. If he was going to take this case, he needed to know what she knew.
In 1999, Holbrook visited McMinnville in Oregon’s Yamhill County because his 7-year-old niece was terminally ill. While he prepared a snack for her friends, one of the children said Holbrook touched her buttocks and put his hand down her pants to touch her vagina. An investigation, an indictment, a mistrial, a second trial, and a conviction followed.
In 2002, Holbrook, then 31, was stripped of his law license, forced to register as a sex offender, and sent to prison. Over the next six years, all of his appeals — in which he represented himself — were rejected. (His niece died soon after he was indicted.)
Among the many irregularities in Holbrook’s case: Two doctors testified about their “medical diagnosis” of sexual abuse, though no physical evidence existed to support such a diagnosis. The court also accepted testimony from interviewers who vouched for the accuser’s veracity.
“Essentially, they testified to their personal opinions that they thought the accuser was truthful,” McHenry says.
Neither type of testimony is allowed in Oregon courts.But most egregious were the actions by the attorneys on both sides. In Holbrook’s original trial, senior DA (now-retired Yamhill County Judge) Tichenor asked Holbrook’s character witnesses whether they knew the defendant was carrying on an inappropriate correspondence with an underage girl. They did not because it wasn’t true. Tichenor had no evidence to ask the questions.
Holbrook filed a Bar complaint against Tichenor, and the prosecutor admitted in writing and under oath that the questions were based entirely on rumor. He’d even sent an investigator to California to corroborate the gossip and found nothing. Finally, he admitted the person to whom the rumors were attributed flatly denied ever suggesting such things.
Nevertheless, Tichenor asked the same questions during the second trial. And Holbrook’s defense attorney sat mute while the prosecutor falsely claimed to the judge that he had a basis for asking them. The second trial ended with an 11-1 vote to convict. (In 2002, Oregon and Louisiana were the only states that allowed non-unanimous criminal convictions. It required 10 votes for a decision.)
Says Goldsmith: “I’ve reported on child abuse before, but terrible injustices go on in the system, as evidenced by Brad Holbrook.”
Mightier than the sword
The reporter initially was tipped off to Holbrook’s story after she wrote about a 2007 incident in which a pair of 12-year-old boys were charged with felony sex abuse. They were caught swatting girls’ bottoms as they ran down the hall of their McMinnville middle school.
“They were criminalizing childhood at the time,” Goldsmith says of a troubling trend she identified in Yamhill County.
The pre-teen defendants faced 10 years in prison and a lifetime on the national sex offenders’ registry. However, conservative talk show host Dennis Prager drew national attention to the story, and ultimately the charges were dropped.
But the McMinnville connection caught a reader’s eye, and he called Goldsmith to say, “If you think that’s bad, you should investigate the Brad Holbrook story.'”
Goldsmith spent a year accumulating, aggregating, and connecting the myriad dots that revealed the gross injustice Holbrook was served. Her 2009 piece won the best crime story in the Pacific Northwest from the Society of Professional Journalists that year.
“Susan is remarkable,” says Holbrook, who was reluctant to cooperate with The Oregonian until he realized Goldsmith would move forward on his story with or without him. They began speaking about a year before he was released.
“My battle was tough initially because the allegations are so sensitive,” Holbrook says. “Without any evidence, you can convict someone of what I was accused of easily, especially if you are willing to cheat and lie.
“Susan figured things out very quickly and did what few others were willing to do: challenge the state’s quote/unquote theories.
“I think perhaps at first the DA really thought maybe I did something, and once he was too deep and vested, he could not back out even after it was clear the allegation was not credible. Most people feel the state would not engage in misconduct. Sadly, they do it all too often. And [Tichenor] almost got away with it. Thanks to Susan and Matt, he was called out.”
The plot thickens
Ironically, Tichenor’s behavior wasn’t the technical issue McHenry used to fight for his client’s exoneration once he took the case.
“It was the failure of Brad’s trial attorney at the time to do anything to address the prosecutor’s misconduct, knowing there was no basis for those questions,” McHenry says. “Trial counsel failed to challenge, object to, or move to strike the same set of salacious character-assassination questions he had asked in the first trial.”
It was a very narrow interpretation of the law, McHenry admits. But it worked.
“We had to sort of thread the needle,” he says.
In May 2018, nearly two decades after the alleged abuse took place, the Oregon Court of Appeals reversed Holbrook’s conviction. Ultimately the Yamhill County DA chose not to pursue the prosecution further. The court granted the DA’s motion to dismiss Holbrook’s case.
In September 2018, the Yamhill County Court signed an order expunging the record of Holbrook’s arrest. He no longer was registered as a sex offender. His case now appears at the National Registry of Exonerations, hosted online by the U-M Law School.
“Brad’s arrest and conviction were expunged, but it still follows him,” says McHenry. “That’s why the exoneration registry is so important.”
The Oregon Criminal Defense Lawyers Association honored McHenry in 2018 with its President’s Award for his pro bono work representing Holbrook.
“Any time we can shed light on the need for reform in the criminal justice system, we are open to that work,” McHenry says.
Goldsmith had kept up with Holbrook after his release from prison. She knew he moved in with the juror and worked with a fellow attorney as a paralegal. When he got married and had children, The Oregonian reporter wrote an affidavit to the court that the wrongly convicted sex offender should be allowed to spend time with his children.
Several changes in Oregon law have since gone into effect to prevent a future defendant from facing a similar fate. Oregon no longer allows non-unanimous jury verdicts after a 2020 Supreme Court decision in Ramos v. Louisiana, 590 U.S. The court ruled that the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution requires unanimous juries for guilty verdicts in criminal trials. Only cases in Oregon were affected by the ruling, because every other state already had this requirement.
In addition, the court no longer accepts a medical diagnosis of abuse without physical findings, nor does it allow interviewers to vouch for an accuser’s credibility.
“I believe many of the changes resulted from lessons learned from my case and the work Susan and Matt did,” Holbrook says.
Back on track
Once Holbrook was exonerated, he set about getting his California law license back. A team of San Francisco attorneys took his case pro bono, and once again, Goldsmith testified on his behalf (via Zoom).
“We had five vital witnesses,” Holbrook says. “Susan was one that we felt was absolutely needed, and she was incredible.”
In July of 2021, Holbrook’s 22-year ordeal came to an end when his license was reinstated.
“Obtaining my license back — seeing it noted as ‘active’ — and getting my Bar card in the mail was the final piece of recovery for me,” says Holbrook, now 51. “It really gave me a level of joy and peace. I am very grateful to be a member of the Bar and an officer of the court.
He’s now working to acquire an Oregon law license and hopes to do the kind of work McHenry did for him.
For Goldsmith, the case was a bittersweet denouement in a slowly vanishing career. She was laid off from The Oregonian not long after her Holbrook story ran. These days she’s worried about the future of investigative reporting in the print media landscape.
“Nothing like this has ever happened in my career,” Goldsmith says. “When Matt called to say ‘your story really affected me,’ it changed everything for Brad. It was very cool to experience the power of journalism.”
These days Goldsmith is in development on a true-crime television series about the unsolved Oakland County Child Killer case in which a serial killer(s) terrorized suburban Detroit in 1977.
In July, Goldsmith heard about Holbrook’s latest victory and wondered if McHenry knew he had regained his California law license. She hadn’t corresponded with McHenry in quite some time and had to look up his firm’s website for his contact information.
She clicked on his bio and only then discovered McHenry was a University of Michigan grad, like herself. They learned they were each children of alumni who had met at U-M.
In retrospect it seems so obvious, Goldsmith says. “Two U-M grads brought some serious Wolverine energy to this case.”
(Top image of Holbrook and McHenry is courtesy of McHenry.)