Wayne County prosecutor wants to expand wrongful conviction unit

Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy said Wednesday she is seeking to get free college and other "wrap around" services for Wayne County exonerees as well as an expansion of the nearly three-year-old Conviction Integrity Unit.

In recent years, wrongfully convicted inmates have been released from prison but have faced financial and other challenges. The county's Conviction Integrity Unit has granted 20 exonerations to date, including one to the longest-serving inmate in the United States.

"We ... want to make sure all of our exonerees are successful," Worthy said, adding that the "wrap around" services would help the former prisoners with housing, transportation and other needs for daily life. 

Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy addresses the crowd during a town hall meeting held in the Community Room at Northville Township Hall, Thursday, Nov. 29, 2018 in Northville Township.

Worthy said she is seeking $800,000 more from the Wayne County government to expand the Conviction Integrity Unit. She said she made a request in January to Wayne County commissioners but realizes she might have to wait longer on additional funding because the county is running a $150 million deficit due to the COVID-19 crisis.

Worthy held the press conference less than two weeks before the Aug. 4 Democratic primary, where she is facing a challenge from Victoria Burton-Harris, who has been endorsed by U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, the independent from Vermont.

Worthy formed the Conviction Integrity Unit, the first county unit in Michigan, to review requests from prisoners and others who contend a conviction was wrong and seek to have the case reviewed and the conviction scrapped.

The Wayne County Prosecutor's Office so far has worked on 700 of the 1,300 such requests it has received, Worthy said Wednesday. 

"I believe that no prosecutor's office ... should be afraid to examine their old convictions," she said during a news conference on ZOOM. "You want to make sure all of these convictions have integrity, and when it doesn't you need to  examine them and not be afraid to file an investigation of them as well."

Worthy was joined Wednesday by CIU Director Valerie Newman, who is a veteran appellate attorney, and five men who have been exonerated.

The unit looks at Wayne County cases where people are maintaining their innocence and where there is new evidence in the case, Newman said.

"It's an enormous amount of work," Newman said. "We investigate the entire case. It's a very time-consuming exploration but ... it's important for people to understand this is a search for the truth. We want to get to the truth. It's important to get it right."

For Aaron Salters, who was exonerated of attempted murder on his 36th birthday in August 2018, the Conviction Integrity Unit "is the only remedy for justice." Salters' wrongful conviction and life sentence in 2003 was the result of mistaken identity, the unit found.

Artist Richard Phillips, who is the longest-serving exoneree in the country, said the unit saved him from a lifetime imprisonment for murder as a result of a false accusation which led to a conviction in 1972.

"I was headed to the graveyard," said Phillips, now in his early 70s, who was exonerated in 2018.

The Conviction Integrity Unit has three full time attorneys, two part time attorneys,  one full time investigator and a full-time administrative staff member.

"These cases take an enormous amount of work," Worthy said. "It's very time consuming, but it's important for people to understand this is a search for the truth and we want to get to the truth."