Michigan trailed just two other states for exonerations last year

Michigan last year was among the states with the largest number of exonerations for criminal convictions, according to a national research project that tracks wrongful imprisonments. 

Michigan tied with California for having the third-highest number of exonerations, according to a report released by the National Registry of Exonerations Tuesday.

The project tracked 161 exonerations in 2021. Illinois had 25 and New York had 18, followed by California and Michigan with 11 each. The group reported 166 exonerations in 2020.

Illinois’ ranking continues to be driven by cases (14) tainted by alleged misconduct of corrupt police officers, the report found. 

The project has tracked more than 3,000 exonerations since 1989. The University of California, Irvine Newkirk Center for Science & Society, the University of Michigan Law School and the Michigan State University College of Law are involved in the project.  

David Moran, the co-founder of the Michigan Innocence Clinic at UM's Law School, said Michigan continues to place high on the list of exonerations because more wrongful convictions are being exposed by groups dedicated to finding questionable convictions and doing something about it.

Moran, whose organization is currently reviewing 50 to 60 cases of possible wrongful convictions, said there are more conviction integrity units investigating possible wrongful convictions as a result of police and prosecutorial misconduct. 

"The Detroit Police Department and the criminal justice system were out of control for so many years," he said.

Darrell Siggers, 58, of Redford Twp., who spent 34 years in prison for a murder he did not commit before being exonerated in 2018, works on his website on March 24, 2022, at his home office. Siggers has created a website which profiles incarcerated individuals seeking exonerations.

In Michigan, eight of the exonerations were murder cases, and one other was a manslaughter conviction. 

The project found in 2017 that while African Americans represent only 13% of the nation's population, they make up the majority of exonerations. 

Nationally, 103 of the exonerations involved violent felonies, including 77 homicides and nine sexual assaults. Another 64 involved people who were convicted but it was later determined no crime had occurred. In 102 cases, misconduct by government officials was involved, 107 involved perjury or false accusations, 47 were connected to mistaken witness identifications and 19 included false confessions.

The creation of conviction integrity units in prosecutor's offices, increasing willingness of judges to vacate convictions and public awareness of wrongful convictions have been credited for the increased numbers of exonerations, the report found.

"A growing number of judges are open to vacating convictions that they or their predecessors would have let stand in years past," according to the report.

Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy's office has had a conviction integrity unit since 2018. The Macomb County prosecutor's office launched its conviction integrity unit in January and the Oakland County Prosecutor's Office followed suit in February.

Conviction Integrity Units played a role in bringing about 61 of the exonerations in 2021, according to the report.

Local businessman Darrell Siggers was exonerated in 2018. He spent 34 years in prison for a Detroit murder he did not commit. He has filed a $150 million federal lawsuit against a retired Detroit police detective and the estate of the deceased crime lab technician whose testimony and handling of the case helped put him behind bars. The pair are accused of hiding and fabricating evidence and testimony that landed Siggers behind bars.

"Prosecutors are no longer fearful investigating their own," said Siggers who has created a website, https://legalaccessplus.com which profiles incarcerated individuals seeking exonerations.

Siggers added "It's the right thing to do. This is the time."

Walter Forbes-Bey, 65, was convicted on faulty witness testimony of arson and murder and spent nearly four decades in prison before being exonerated in November of 2020.

"It's definitely a movement," Forbes-Bey said of the conviction integrity units and other groups focused on righting past injustices.

Gilbert Poole Jr., 57, was among those exonerated in Michigan last year. He spent 32 years behind bars before he was cleared in May of the June 7, 1988, slaying of Robert Mejia, 35, of Pontiac.

Poole was scheduled to be honored Tuesday by City of Pontiac officials along with three other exonerees, Juwan Deering; George DeJesus and Melvin DeJesus.

"Deeper investigations should be done earlier on complaints (of innocence) than doing something down the road," said Poole. "But I'm glad they're acknowledging mistakes."

Darrell Siggers, second from left, of Redford, is served BBQ food by SAY Detroit's Marc "Rosey" Rosenthal, right, during the Better Together BBQ luncheon on July 14, 2021.

Attorney Wolf Mueller said the registry is an important tool in keeping track of wrongful convictions and exonerations. He said he has found its reporting to be accurate and important in describing "the factors that led to these injustices."

"While we have learned a lot about how false convictions occur, they still happen," said Barbara O'Brien, the editor of the National Registry of Exonerations. "Of the more than 3,000 exonerations since 1989 that we have documented, more than 400 were for convictions that took place in the last ten years," said O'Brien. "And that number doesn’t include cases of wrongful conviction that haven’t resulted in exoneration yet, or those that will never be remedied."

bwilliams@detroitnews.com