Releases from bad convictions hit record level

George Hunter
The Detroit News

Ken Wyniemko spent nine years in prison before DNA proved he wasn't a rapist. He's been free since 2003, but he says he's still haunted by the horrors of penitentiary life.

Ken Wyniemko

"When I was locked up, I saw people get stabbed to death; I’ve seen people get raped; I’ve seen guards get stabbed," said Wyniemko, 67. "Those visions have gone away a little bit, but there are times when I get flashbacks. I have times where I can't sleep at night and the images keep popping up in my head."

When Wyniemko's conviction was overturned in 2003, exonerations were relatively rare. That's changed, thanks to several factors including advances in forensic science, and what innocence advocates say is a new willingness by police and prosecutors to take a second look at potentially tainted cases.

Only three Michigan prisoners were exonerated in 2003, and there had been only 15 others since 1991. Since then, there have been 72 exonerations in the state, including a record 14 last year, according to the National Registry of Exonerations.

So far this year, four Michigan prisoners have been exonerated, and at least three others were granted new trials. Since Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy formed the Conviction Integrity Unit in November to look at possible wrongful convictions, two people have been exonerated, while two others were granted new trials.

University of Michigan law professor David Moran, who heads the school's Innocence Clinic, said the recent uptick in Michigan exoneration cases stems in large part from problems in the Detroit Police Department that prompted a federal consent decree in 2003; and issues with the Detroit Police Crime Lab, which was shut down in 2008 because of rampant mismanagement and, some say, corruption.

Detroit officials agreed to the federal monitoring to avoid a massive civil rights lawsuit alleging suspects and witnesses were subjected to excessive force, false arrests, illegal detentions and unconstitutional conditions of confinement.

The Crime Lab was shuttered after Michigan State Police released a scathing audit in which they found a 10 percent error rate. The audit's authors expressed concern that tainted evidence may have led to wrongful convictions — which is exactly what happened, Moran said.

"For many years, DPD was out of control," Moran said. "It's well-documented how they were taking unconstitutional shortcuts on a regular basis. The crime lab was run by corrupt people, and who knows how many innocent people were sent to prison because of them? A lot of these cases are just now starting to come to light; that's why we're seeing so many."

Since the Detroit crime lab closed, the Michigan State Police lab has handled Detroit's forensic work; while the Detroit Police Department in 2014 was deemed to be in compliance with federal edicts and was released from the consent decree.

Detroit police Chief James Craig said the culture that once permeated the department has changed.

"It's no secret that there were some things that went on in the department that led us into a consent judgment," Craig said. "One of the main things I focused on in my first year was management accountability. I knew that was the path to getting out of the consent decree, because that's how they did it in Los Angeles (where Craig spent 28 years as a cop).

"The manner in which we conducted investigations was concerning to me coming in the door," Craig said. "I put new leadership in, and things started to change. I don't want to criticize all the investigators who were here then, because many of them were and are great at their jobs. But we have raised the overall level of professionalism."

Craig last year agreed to work with UM's Innocence Clinic to help investigate cases that may have resulted in wrongful convictions. He said detectives have re-investigated a few cases, although he said nothing concrete has yet been uncovered.

Of the 89 Michigan cases listed on the National Registry of Exonerations, 42 were from Wayne County, and almost all of those are from Detroit.

Bill Proctor, a former police officer and Detroit television news reporter whose agency, Proving Innocence, advocates for wrongfully convicted prisoners, said the flood of Wayne County cases is the result of "a horrific history that's now catching up in the present."

"First of all, most of the crime in Michigan happens in Wayne County and Detroit," he said. "This taxes the criminal justice system, and that leads to abuses because there's pressure to solve these cases and get convictions.

"In many instances, it was the abuse of prisoners that led to confessions," Proctor said. "The police were beating people, not letting them use the bathroom, and locking them in dark closets until they confessed — whether they did the crime or not."

According to the New York-based Innocence Project, about 30 percent of people who were exonerated by DNA evidence had made a false confession.

Aaron Salter was exonerated after serving 15 years in prison for a murder he didn't commit.

'I still have issues'

The most recent Michigan exoneration case was Aaron Salter, who was released from prison Aug. 15 after serving 15 years for a 2003 murder he didn't commit.

Salter was convicted based largely on the testimony of one man, who later said he wasn't sure Salter was the gunman. At Salter's sentencing, the victim's sister told the court the wrong person was being convicted of the killing.

Salter's attorney, Wolf Mueller, said corrupt Detroit cops were responsible for the wrongful conviction.

"This was a total frame-job," said Mueller, who said he plans to file a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city. "The police knew he didn't do it."

Mueller pointed out that the sole witness to the shooting was shown one photo of Salter and asked if he recognized him as the gunman. The normal method is to show a "six pack" — six photographs of possible suspects — to avoid leading the witness.

"The whole way this thing was handled was ridiculous," Mueller said.

Salter said he isn't bitter about how his case turned out. "I just want to spend time with my family," he said.

Some wrongfully convicted inmates — like many other ex-prisoners — say they're having a difficult time adjusting to life on the outside. 

"Every day it’s a different struggle," said Konrad Montgomery, who was exonerated last year after spending three years in prison for attempted murder before his July 2016 release. "I still have issues with going to prison for something I didn't do."

The Michigan Court of Appeals ruled assistant Wayne County prosecutor John Casey misrepresented cellphone evidence during Montgomery's trial. Cell tower data showed Montgomery was 11 miles away from the scene of a robbery and shooting of a man on Detroit's west side.

Casey “advanced as one possibility that (Montgomery) could have set up his phone at one location to forward calls to another location,” allowing him to rob the victim, the Court of Appeals said.

The appellate court ruled Casey's statement was improper because it was outside the scope of what had been stipulated to. The court granted Montgomery a new trial, and the charges against him were dropped.

Montgomery said prison changed him. 

"I’m not the same guy I was before I got locked up," said Montgomery, 35. "My girlfriend calls me a monster because I have no emotions. But I've learned not to show emotions. I shut down. In prison, you learn not to say anything because if you get into it with someone, you might get stabbed.

"I feel sorry for everyone who did prison time and was innocent," Montgomery said. "You still have that prison mentality, even when you get out. In prison, everyone is out to get you; everyone is looking to take advantage of you. It's not easy to let your guard down."

Some exonerees have had legal troubles after their release. Thomas Highers, who along with his brother Raymond served 25 years behind bars for a murder they didn't commit, was arrested in February and charged with assault. His trial is scheduled to start Sept. 5.

Innocence investigator Bill Proctor talks about Davontae Sanford, left, who was imprisoned as a 14-year-old for a crime he did not commit.

Davontae Sanford was released from prison in June 2016 after state police found former Detroit police commander James Tolbert had lied on the witness stand about who had drawn a crime scene map. Sanford is awaiting trial in Arizona after he allegedly fired a rifle in the desert near an occupied playground in March.

Sanford's 2008 murder conviction made national headlines. He was 14 years old when he was arrested, and 15 when he was convicted of a 2007 quadruple homicide. Going to prison at such a young age has made it tough for Sanford, 25, to adjust to life as a free man, his attorney William Goodman said.

"Having spent the years which normally a teenager would be maturing and developing, he was held in adult prisons," said Goodman, who last year filed a federal lawsuit against Detroit and two officers seeking unspecified damages.

"This stunted his development and makes it difficult for him to emerge as a full-blown adult citizen back in society," Goodman said.

Payment delayed

Sanford, whose trial is scheduled for trial in October, was awarded $408,000 from the state in January after Michigan passed a law last year enabling wrongfully convicted ex-prisoners to seek payment of $50,000 for each year served.

Sanford is one of the few ex-prisoners who have gotten the money. The state Attorney General's Office is fighting most of the claims.

Montgomery is trying to get the $150,000 he insists he's entitled to, but he says the state is using a loophole to withhold payment. 

Although the statute requires claims by exonerees to be filed within 18 months after leaving prison, Montgomery said he was told he was ineligible because of a separate rule requiring anyone suing the state for damages to file a notification within six months of the date of loss.

The Wrongful Imprisonment Compensation Act became law March 29, 2017. Montgomery was released from prison four months later, and didn't file his claim until two months had passed. State attorneys say that makes him ineligible.

"That makes no sense," he said. "Everyone agrees I'm innocent. For me not to get that money on a technicality is ridiculous."

Jerry Gill, chief of staff for state Sen. Steve Bieda, D-Warren, who introduced the compensation act, said the senator is working on two bills that would fix the statute discrepancy and ensure that exonerees have 18 months after their release from prison to file claims. 

One of Mueller's clients, Donya Davis, was convicted of rape in October 2007.  He was exonerated by DNA evidence in 2014 — but Mueller said when he filed for compensation, the Attorney General's office challenged the claim.   

"The state has fought Donya on compensation every step, while Donya lives in a homeless shelter," Mueller said. "(The state claimed) its (Michigan State Police) expert would say the earlier results were inconclusive. 

"(On Aug. 23), the MSP DNA expert, Heather Vitta, testified under oath that she was 'extremely confident' that Donya was excluded as the source of the ... DNA (found on the rape victim)," Mueller said. “Where did these (state) lawyers learn their craft? They don’t talk to their experts to find out that the state’s position is completely wrong?

"They obviously haven’t read the (wrongful compensation) statute to understand that it is designed to compensate the wrongfully imprisoned," Mueller said. "Now it will cost the taxpayers more money for attorney fees.”

Andrea Bitely, spokeswoman for Attorney General Bill Schuette, said she couldn't comment on the ongoing litigation.

Attorney Gabi Silver has five wrongfully convicted clients awaiting payment. Among them: Julie Baumer, who was convicted in 2005 of first-degree child abuse after she took her infant nephew to the hospital and doctors found the baby had a skull fracture and had lost a lot of blood.

Her conviction was overturned because it was determined her attorney was ineffective. But Silver said the state denied her compensation claim.

"They said she didn't get out of prison because she's innocent; she got out because her attorney was bad," Silver said. "It's really unbelievable. This poor woman's life was basically ruined because of this, and now the state is doing it to her again."

Another Silver client, Richard Phillips, was released from prison in March after serving 45 years for a murder he didn't commit. The real killer told the parole board Phillips was innocent. After Silver and the Innocence Clinic took up his case, he was freed. 

Upon his release, Worthy said: "The system failed him; there's no doubt about it. This was a true exoneration."

Despite that, the attorney general's office is fighting his compensation claim.

"He's struggling," Silver said. "He's completely innocent and he has to sue the state to get paid. He's 73 years old and has nothing except a car that was donated to him — and because he has no driving history, his insurance is $2,000 for six months (which Silver said is also being paid by donors).

"It's just a horrible situation," Silver said. "These people already got screwed over by the state, and they're getting screwed again."

Konrad Montgomery served time for robbery and assault before a finding of misconduct on the part of prosecutors.

Thousands wrongfully convicted

Michigan ranks fifth in the nation in prisoners released after their wrongful convictions were overturned, behind Texas, New York, Illinois and California, according to the National Registry of Exonerations, a University of Michigan project.

The spike in Michigan exonerations mirrors a national trend, with more than half of the overturned convictions nationwide since 1989 coming in the past 10 years.

Exoneration projects like UM's Innocence Clinic are a recent phenomenon. Although there have long been efforts to free innocent prisoners, the modern movement began with the first DNA exoneration in 1989 of Gary Dotson, a high-school dropout from a Chicago suburb who was convicted of rape, but cleared by the new forensic evidence.

"Those DNA cases helped shine a light on other problems in the criminal justice system," said Moran, who started the Innocence Clinic in 2009. "There was no reason to think those problems were limited to cases involving DNA.

"Once we started to see how often there were errors when there was DNA to test, you just knew if you looked at other cases you’d find wrongful convictions," Moran said.

In addition to scientific advances, more prosecutors are starting to join efforts to exonerate innocent prisoners, Federal Defender Office attorney Colleen Fitzharris said.

"We've seen more prosecutors forming units like (Wayne County's) Conviction Integrity Unit," Fitzharris said. "The more we learn about these cases, the more prosecutors are going back and taking a second look at convictions."

Worthy, who once was lambasted by many in the innocence community for how vehemently she fought innocence claims, has received high praise from exonerated prisoners and their advocates for forming the integrity unit.

"If it wasn't for Kym Worthy and the Integrity Unit, I might still be in prison," Salter said. "I'm glad they listened and took my case. They didn't waste any time, either. I want to thank Kym Worthy for what she did."

Wyniemko added: "Kym Worthy wasn't on my most favorite people list, but her attitude started to change when she brought (former State Appellate Defender Office attorney) Val Newman (to head the conviction integrity unit).

"I think Kym was feeling the heat from a lot of people who felt she wasn't being fair to exonerees," he said. "She's looked at in a better light now."

Worthy said in a statement: “I feel strongly that prosecutor's offices should not be afraid of Conviction Integrity Units. This work is incredibly challenging, time consuming, and important. We thoroughly investigate claims of actual innocence. In some cases, scientific and technological advances make taking another serious look at a case necessary.

"In the end, overwhelmingly, our convictions are solid," Worthy said. "But we have had some exonerations and other cases where a defendant’s release from prison was in the best interests of justice.”

Among the inmates Worthy's unit has helped is Mubarez Ahmed, who was granted a new trial Aug. 15 in Wayne County Circuit Court. The integrity unit agreed with the Innocence Clinic that Ahmed's 2002 murder conviction was tainted.

Years after Ahmed was sent to prison, the eyewitness who'd helped convict him told Innocence Clinic investigators that the Detroit police detective in charge of the case showed her a photo of Ahmed just before the lineup and told her that's who he wanted her to select.

"And that eyewitness ID was the entire case against Ahmed — there was literally no other evidence," an Innocence Clinic press release said.

Ahmed is expected to be released from prison soon, Moran said.

While it's impossible to say how many criminal cases result in wrongful convictions, studies suggest there are likely hundreds of thousands of innocent people behind bars.

A 2013 study commissioned by the U.S. Department of Justice found 12.6 percent of convictions involving DNA were of innocent defendants.

"Extrapolating to all cases in our dataset, we estimate a slightly smaller rate of 11.6 percent (for non-DNA cases)," concluded the study's authors, who looked at murder and sexual assault convictions in the 1970s and 1980s in 56 Virginia circuit courts.

Wyniemko said the numbers are staggering.

"Even if it’s just 10 percent, we have 2.3 million people in prison in the United States, so you're talking about 230,000 innocent people behind bars," Wyniemko said. "If that doesn’t get someone’s attention, something’s wrong with them."
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