Report: Official misconduct to blame in bevy of wrongful convictions

Michael Powels spent 12 years behind bars for a murder he did not commit before he was freed and his name was officially cleared.

Powels, a 40-year-old Detroiter, was convicted in the 2006 death of Robert Sawyer at a traffic light on Detroit's west side. But a judge threw out Powels' murder conviction and he was released from prison in January 2019 after it was discovered a witness in the case admitted to lying to police.  

Michael Powels kisses his mother Kay while hanging out in front of her home, in Detroit, September 13, 2020. Powels served 12 years in prison for a crime he did not commit before he was freed and officially cleared of the murder he was falsely accused of.

He now believes there are many others like him in Michigan's prisons who were wrongly convicted — and some as result of police and prosecutorial misconduct. 

"A lot of times police officers fix their cases so that prosecutors will sign off on them. This has been going on for years," he said. "People are more aware of it now because of the exonerations."

A new report released Tuesday on exonerations highlights the levels of misconduct by police and prosecutors that are believed partly responsible for putting hundreds of innocent people, mostly African American men, in prison for murder or other serious offenses.

The 204-page report from the National Registry of Exonerations, titled “Government Misconduct and Convicting the Innocent: the Role of Prosecutors, Police and Other Law Enforcement,” is based on an examination of 2,400 cases the registry has compiled dating to 1989.

According to the report by the registry, which is based at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, prosecutors committed misconduct in 30% of the cases in which a convict was exonerated and police in 34% of cases. In federal cases, misconduct by prosecutors was two-and-a-half times as common as misconduct by police, according to the report.

The report covers misconduct from initial criminal investigations to trials, with five categories: witness tampering, interrogation misconduct, fabricating evidence, concealing exculpatory evidence, and trial misconduct.

Samuel Gross

“Official misconduct damages truth-seeking by our criminal justice system and undermines public confidence," said Samuel Gross, a UM law professor and the lead author of the report. "It steals years — sometimes decades — from the lives of innocent people. The great majority of wrongful convictions are never discovered, so the scope of the problem is much greater than these numbers show.”

He added: "There's no one remedy for official misconduct in criminal cases because it's not one problem but many." 

The report recommends new procedures, such as recording all interrogations and viewings of photo lineups, to improve evidence gathering and reduce misconduct.

"Most of the rules we need are in place," Gross said. "We need enforcement but also adequate resources to do a good job, supervision, and especially leadership. We need to change entrenched work cultures." 

The registry is a joint project of the University of Michigan Law School, Michigan State University College of Law and the University of California-Irvine Newkirk Center for Science & Society.

With 120 exonerations to date, Michigan ranks fifth among the states with the most such cases, said Gross. The top four are Texas with 388 exonerations, Illinois with 336, New York with 298 and California with 217.

Among the report's other findings: Black defendants were slightly more likely than white defendants to be victims of official misconduct, in 57% of cases compared with 52%. The gap is much wider for drug crimes, 47% to 22%; and for murder cases, 78% to 64%. In death penalty cases, the difference was 87% to 68%.

Three years ago, the National Registry of Exonerations released a study of the role race plays in wrongful convictions and concluded innocent Black people were more likely to be wrongfully convicted than whites and spend more time in prison.

Imran Syed

The new report's authors say its data underscores a need for "more discipline and professionalism by police and prosecutors."

Imran Syed, an assistant law professor and the assistant director for the Michigan Innocence Clinic at the University of Michigan Law School, said the report "comes at the right time" and is just "the tip of the iceberg" of what has been taking place in the U.S. law enforcement and judicial systems.

The Innocence Clinic, which was formed 11 years ago, has aided in the exonerations of 23 convicts and gets 6,000 applications a year from inmates seeking help with their cases.

"(The report) really does bear out what we see," Syed said. "Having this data will wake people up."

Attorney Wolf Mueller, who has represented eight wrongfully convicted Detroit area residents, said he is not surprised by the findings and estimates there could be as many as 2,000 Michigan inmates who were put behind bars on wrongful convictions.

Mueller, who has represented exonerees in both federal and state lawsuits in cases where police misconduct is alleged, says part of the solution is lifting qualified immunity for police officers. 

Mubarez Ahmed, left, listens as the judge dismisses his case as he stands with his civil attorney Wolf Mueller, center, and defense attorney Todd Perkins, right.

"Do away with the immunity that the officer and prosecutors have," he said.

In addition, Mueller said, "you have to have better training in terms of interviewing techniques and forensics."

Mueller has filed a lawsuit on behalf of Mubarez Ahmed, who was wrongfully convicted of a 2001 double homicide and released from prison in September 2018 after serving nearly 18 years in prison. The federal complaint alleges Detroit police Sgt. Ernest Wilson made up evidence and lied on the witness stand to get a conviction against Ahmed.

In July, a federal judge rejected a request from Wilson to dismiss the suit, writing the officer incorrectly identified the owner of the automobile Ahmed was alleged to have driven in the shooting.

Locally, there have been criminal justice reform efforts made by the Wayne County Prosecutor's Office to regularly release to the public the names of police officers who are unable to testify in court cases because they were found guilty of being untruthful. A list obtained by The Detroit News in July contained the names of 35 officers.

Pastor Terrence Devezin

"We are taking the additional step of releasing the list to the public because in an era of criminal justice reform, it just makes sense," Worthy previously has said.

The prosecutor has drawn praise for the creation of a Conviction Integrity Unit in her office, which investigates complaints of wrongful convictions.

Assistant Wayne County Prosecutor Maria Miller, the spokeswoman for the Wayne County Prosecutor's Office, said: "In the cases that the (integrity unit) has reviewed, there have been no findings of prosecutorial misconduct."

"This is not to say that prosecutors didn’t make some errors in some of these cases, but nothing that the CIU could say was purposeful." 

Danny Burton, 50, spent three decades in prison after being wrongly convicted of a 1987 murder. His sentence was vacated after the Wayne County Prosecutor's Office learned witnesses who said Burton helped dump the body of 20-year-old shooting victim Leonard Ruffin had been paid by police. 

"It can happen to anybody," said Burton. "Police are given too much control (and) they can initiate false information and witnesses like they did in my case."

Following a re-investigation by the Wayne County Prosecutor Office's Conviction Integrity Unit, the prosecution agreed on Dec. 6, 2019, to vacate Burton’s conviction and dismissed the case. He was immediately released from prison.

For those who work to help the exonerated men and women through advocacy programs, the report confirms what they say they suspected all along.

Pastor Terrence Devezin of United Kingdom & Missionary Baptist Church in Detroit said law enforcement officials who commit misconduct know what they are doing is wrong but are more interested in being able to "close the deal" on a conviction, even if it means an innocent person goes to prison.

Michael Powels sits on the front porch of his mother's home, in Detroit, September 13, 2020. Powels served 12 years in prison for a crime he did not commit before he was freed and officially cleared of the murder he was falsely accused of.

"They're heartless and spineless because it's not their loved ones about to face time," he said. "Aside from prayer we have to find a way to get the right people in the right places."

Devezin said implementing programs like the Wayne County Prosecutor's Conviction Integrity Unit is a start to correcting wrongful convictions.

As part of the report, a database will be set up by the National Registry of Exonerations to allow citizens to track the incidence of police, prosecutor and other official misconduct by county. The study's authors say the new data "underscore the need for more discipline and professionalism by police and prosecutors."

For his part, Powels says even though he was wrongfully convicted, "I'm not bitter. I'm just blessed to be out here with my family."

Some key findings

The report from the National Registry of Exonerations found:

  • Official misconduct contributed to the false convictions of 54% of defendants who were later exonerated. In general, the rate of misconduct is higher in more severe crimes.
  • Concealing exculpatory evidence — the most common type of misconduct cited —occurred in 44% of exonerations.
  • African American exonerees were slightly more likely than whites to have been victims of misconduct
  • Police officers committed misconduct in 35% of cases. They were responsible for most of the witness tampering, misconduct in interrogation, and fabricating evidence.
  • Prosecutors committed misconduct in 30% of the cases. Prosecutors were responsible for most of the concealing of exculpatory evidence and misconduct at trial, and a substantial amount of witness tampering.
  • While prosecutors and police committed misconduct at about the same rates in state court cases, prosecutors committed misconduct more than twice as often as police in federal cases. In the case of white-collar crimes, prosecutors committed misconduct seven times as often as police.