Give Prosecutor Kym Worthy some credit for taking a critical step toward getting justice right in Wayne County. Her appointment of Valerie Newman as head of the new Conviction Integrity Unit should help restore confidence that the county values justice over expediency in its handling of innocence claims.
We have been highly critical of Worthy in the past for her stubbornness in sticking by convictions even when overwhelming evidence suggested those sent to prison were innocent of the crime for which they were convicted.
The most notable example was that of Devontae Sanford, a Detroit resident who was convicted of murder as a 14-year-old and spent nine years in prison, even though someone else confessed to the crime shortly after he was locked up.
The prosecutor’s office fought to keep Sanford locked up, despite egregious errors in the investigation of the case, and what appeared to be a coerced confession.
Ironically, Newman was one of the attorneys who eventually won Sanford’s freedom in 2016.
There have been other recent wrongful convictions findings in cases out of Wayne County, prompting Worthy to form the new unit.
Newman will be tasked with reviewing convictions and investigating discrepancies in evidence that suggest the wrong person is heading to prison.
Thanks to $660,000 in additional funding from Wayne County Executive Warren Evans and the County Commission, Newman’s division will be staffed by two full-time lawyers, a project consultant lawyer, a full-time investigator, a part-time investigator and an administrative staff person.
That’s a substantial commitment to making sure justice is served.
Newman is uniquely suited for her new role. She has been investigating innocence claims for much of her career.
A graduate of Wayne State University’s law school, she spent 23 years in the State Appellate Defender Office. She’s also an adjunct professor in the University of Michigan Law School.
Her appointment is part of a welcome trend toward a more open attitude when it comes to claims of innocence. Prosecutors and police across Michigan have been too reluctant to acknowledge the possibility that they had made mistakes, but are now softening.
Earlier this year, Detroit Police Chief James Craig pledged his department’s full cooperation with the UM Innocence Clinic, which is a leading investigator of wrongful conviction claims.
Wayne County was responsible for a majority of the cases the clinic investigated, and had been the least cooperative in addressing errors. So Worthy’s appointment of Newman is a significant step.
There is a financial incentive now for paying more attention to credible claims of innocence. The state Legislature passed a law that allows those wrongfully imprisoned to petition for $50,000 for every year they were confined.
In the Sanford case, Attorney General Bill Schuette decided earlier this month not to contest his claim to the money.
But most important is the clear commitment to getting justice right in Wayne County.