Oakland Co. prosecutor launches unit to probe wrongful conviction claims

Mike Martindale
The Detroit News

Pontiac — Oakland County Prosecutor Karen D. McDonald announced the start of the first Conviction Integrity Unit in Oakland County in an effort to ensure a credible criminal justice system.

The unit will seek to make the county "more fair and accountable in prosecutions and to remedy past injustices," McDonald said in a Wednesday news release, and provide a process where those who feel they have been wrongfully convicted can petition her office to review their cases. It will be led by veteran trial attorney Beth Greenberg Morrow.

“Wrongful convictions are devastating for everyone involved,” McDonald said in a statement. “However, as we celebrate and honor Black History Month, we also must recognize that communities of color and low-income individuals are disproportionately affected throughout every facet of the existing criminal justice system.”

Conviction Integrity Units have been established in Wayne, Washtenaw and Macomb counties and also the Michigan Attorney General’s Office.

The goal of such units, McDonald said, is to restore trust in the justice system for communities that have historically faced severe injustices and to identify practices to prevent wrongful convictions and restore the community’s faith in the justice system.

Discussions for the new unit were initiated within a month of McDonald taking office in January 2021. It was funded by the Oakland County Board of Commissioners in its 2022 budget.

McDonald showed a commitment to ensuring conviction integrity after the high-profile conviction of Juwan Deering in a 2000 Royal Oak Township arson fire that killed five children was brought to her attention by the Michigan Innocence Clinic. 

McDonald’s subsequent review of the case turned up allegations of serious misconduct and she appointed Morrow, a special prosecutor, to conduct an independent investigation which found new evidence that was not disclosed to the defense during Deering's trial and that his jury never heard. That included findings that jailhouse witnesses who'd said Deering implicated himself in the deaths had received favors in exchange for testimony.

Jurors were also unaware of a detective’s interview with a 13-year-old sibling who survived the fire. The teen had said he knew Deering as a neighbor but told police that Deering was not the person he heard outside the house possibly starting the fire.

McDonald supported a motion to vacate Deering’s 2006 conviction, and in September his conviction was vacated after spending 15 years in prison.

McDonald said the Deering case demonstrated the need for a Conviction Integrity Unit and stated: “It is my responsibility as Oakland County Prosecutor to ensure that the individuals who claim to have been wrongfully convicted by our courts have a process to be heard fairly and impartially.

“Our Conviction Integrity Unit will help those individuals access the relief to which they are more than entitled by evaluating each claim of innocence fairly, impartially, and rigorously,” she said. “Just as we cannot sit by and allow victims of crime to go without advocates or a voice, we also cannot sit by and allow those who are innocent to be punished for crimes they did not commit.”

Morrow noted that she's learned from her 30-year career as a criminal defense attorney that "we all have biases and prejudices."

"It is what we do with them that changes things. We know that wrongful convictions disproportionately affect black and brown communities and it is time to fix this," Morrow added. "I was brought in from the outside to provide a new eye, a fresh look at Oakland County’s criminal justice system. To me, this means that Prosecutor McDonald is serious about integrity in her office. My work here will be to investigate, expose, and rectify these serious miscarriages of justice.”

The Wayne County Prosecutor's Office began its Conviction Integrity Unit in January 2018. It has three full-time attorneys, one part-time lawyer, two detectives, an administrative assistant and two paid interns assigned to it, said Maria Miller, a spokeswoman for Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy. 

Numerous exonerations, new trials and case dismissals have resulted, Miller said. There are currently about 30 open investigations.

“Prosecutors should never be afraid to examine previous convictions in their jurisdictions," Worthy said. "It is difficult and time-consuming work, but true justice demands this. I am very pleased that Prosecutor McDonald has brought a CIU to Oakland County headed by Beth Morrow. I have known Beth for decades as a highly competent, dedicated, and passionate lawyer."

In Macomb County, assistant prosecuting attorney Gail Pamukov said plans for a CIU there were announced in January. The work remains in progress and officials hope the unit is operational shortly, she said. 

"We are staffed with one full-time attorney and an investigator is assigned to the unit," she said."Prosecutor (Peter) Lucido views this as critical so claims of innocence and the integrity of convictions can be evaluated."

Frances Walters, director of Washtenaw County’s Conviction Integrity and Expungement Unit, said the county's unit was something that Prosecutor Eli Savit discussed in his campaign as a high priority. Funding for it began in February 2021.

“Wrongfully convicting someone of a crime is one of the most grievous errors that can be made in the criminal legal system,” Walters said.

The CIEU has reviewed and is actively reviewing about a dozen cases involving innocence claims and there are about 20 cases in the queue waiting to be reviewed, Walters said.

Additionally, since April 2021 the unit has assisted over 500 individuals with the expungement process by email, phone, and in-person at expungement fairs hosted with partners, she said.

Lynsey Mukomel, press secretary for Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, said the state's unit was announced in 2019 and has received about 1,600 requests for assistance. About 550 cases have been reviewed and closed. About 1,050 others remain open.

mmartindale@detroitnews.com

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