Letter: Wayne County Conviction Integrity Unit brings justice for all
If we want true criminal justice reform, we need to start with prosecutors who have the integrity to recognize that the criminal justice system has wrongfully convicted innocent people. Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy is one such prosecutor. Her Conviction Integrity Unit has made huge strides in achieving what “justice” should look like.
The Wayne County CIU has been responsible for the release of 16 men in just a few years of existence, including Richard Phillips, who served 45 years in prison, the longest serving exoneree in U.S. history. By comparison, many CIUs around the country in existence three or more years have no exonerations.
In the twelve years I have been involved with wrongful conviction cases, police misconduct has been most often the cause, including use of unreliable forensic evidence, flat-out fabrication of evidence and coercing witnesses to falsely implicate innocent people. This type of unconstitutional conduct helped lead to federal oversight of the Detroit Police Department in 2003. Many of the wrongful convictions stem from the 1980s and 1990s when constitutional violations by police were rampant.
The CIU gives a fresh set of eyes to claims of wrongful convictions. Its purpose is not only to free the innocent but to find the root cause of wrongful convictions so that systemic changes can be made to prevent history repeating itself. While the criminal appellate system focuses on whether a trial was procedurally correct, the CIU focuses on actual innocence. And to Worthy’s credit, they are not afraid to look at the role prosecutors may have played in a wrongful conviction regardless of when the conviction occurred. For this, the CIU may take criticism from hardline cops and prosecutors who don’t think innocent prisoners exist.
Given its size, with the city of Detroit as its hub, one can expect that the numbers of wrongful convictions in Wayne County would be larger than other counties, especially given the past history of the Detroit Police Department. Prosecutor Worthy has been willing to look at claims of innocence with an objective eye instead of merely paying lip service to the notion of criminal justice reform. Her efforts, and those of the CIU lawyers and investigators, should be applauded.
The Wayne County CIU has been a model for other Conviction Integrity Units around the country. In 2019, Dana Nessel, Michigan’s Attorney General, formed a statewide Conviction Integrity Unit and named Robyn Frankel, a well-respected criminal defense attorney, to lead the unit. These measures will help ensure that Michigan and Wayne County are at the forefront of true criminal justice reform and justice will be “just” for everyone.
Wolfgang Mueller, Novi
Civil rights attorney specializing in wrongful conviction and police misconduct cases