Michigan attorney general launches wrongful conviction unit

George Hunter
The Detroit News

Two years after a record number of exonerations for wrongful convictions in Michigan, the state Attorney General's Office on Wednesday announced the formation of a new Conviction Integrity Unit that will look into claims of innocence.

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel

The unit is the second such team to be formed in the state; in November 2017 the Wayne County Prosecutor's Office started a Conviction Integrity Unit. The state unit is modeled after the county's initiative, according to a press release from the Attorney General's Office.

"The unit will investigate credible claims of innocence to ensure no one is convicted of a crime they didn’t actually commit," the release said.

Since innocence projects began popping up in the 1990s, dozens of Michigan prisoners have been exonerated, including a record 14 in 2017, according to the National Registry of Exonerations.

Most of the exonerations were in Wayne County in cases involving Detroit police. Innocence advocates say the wrongful convictions are part of systemic problems in Detroit's police department that were so pervasive in the 1990s and early 2000s, the federal government entered into a consent judgment with the city to avoid lawsuits alleging mistreatment of citizens and excessive use of force.

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel named longtime criminal defense attorney Robyn B. Frankel as the unit's head.

“We have a duty to ensure those convicted of state crimes by county prosecutors and our office are in fact guilty of those crimes,” Nessel said in a written statement. “By establishing this unit, we will work to make certain those ethical and legal obligations are met while providing justice to those wrongfully imprisoned and keeping dangerous offenders out of Michigan communities.”

The unit will review innocence claims arising from convictions in each of Michigan’s counties, except Wayne County.

"In cases where further review is merited, the unit will work in tandem with county prosecutors, law enforcement, defense attorneys and innocence clinics," Wednesday's release said.

"Moreover, where necessary, the unit will conduct its own investigation by interviewing victims (and) witnesses, and testing physical evidence using the most updated scientific techniques to determine whether a claimant is innocent of the crime(s) for which he or she was convicted and sentenced."

If it's determined there was a wrongful conviction, Nessel said she'll "take the appropriate remedial action, which may include vacating the claimant’s conviction(s) and dismissing the charge(s) against them."

The unit plans to have a process in place to take on cases no later than summer, the release said.

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