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Finley: CYA rules for Wayne County prosecutor

Nolan Finley, The Detroit News

Covering your fanny is a natural instinct. No one is crazy about admitting to a big, awful mistake.

But when that error costs someone his freedom, and you’ve sworn yourself to getting justice right, not being able to say “I got it wrong” is more than just a character flaw; it puts you on the wrong side of morality.

That’s where too many prosecutors stand in Michigan, and particularly in Wayne County.

Yet another case is in the news of the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office clawing to suppress evidence that might exonerate a man convicted of murder and locked up since 1992.

Desmond Ricks contends Detroit police framed him by switching out the bullets found in the murder victim. The ballistics expert who testified against him now concurs, and the University of Michigan’s Innocence Clinic found the evidence compelling enough to take the case.

I don’t know if Ricks is innocent. But I do know that when presented with the credible evidence that he might be, the response from Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy should have been to take a hard look with an open mind. Instead, Worthy’s office dismissed the claim outright, according to the Associated Press, as “ingeniously imaginative.”

That might be acceptable were it not for Worthy’s track record. The wrongful conviction claim by Ricks is not a one-off. At least six times in recent years inmates prosecuted by Wayne County have had their convictions overturned after serving long sentences. And in every case Worthy battled till the end to keep them imprisoned.

I asked David Moran, director of the Innocence Clinic, if Wayne County ever admits it made a mistake. “Not to us,” he said.

Moran says some Michigan prosecutors are responsive when a wrongful conviction claim is raised, will look at the evidence and in many cases seek to corroborate it with their own investigation.

He cited as an example former Ionia County Prosecutor Ron Shafer, who, when presented with evidence that a man convicted of killing his wife and two daughters in an arson fire did not commit the crime, signed an order of release that very day.

But that’s not the norm.

“In many prosecutor’s offices, there’s a denialism that a mistake was made,” Moran says. “They are more worried about how the office might look than they are about justice.”

In a highly publicized case last fall, Davontae Sanford, who was locked up at age 14 for murders everyone had to know he didn’t do, won his release. But in an epic example of obstinacy, Worthy still has not charged the person whom the evidence suggests is responsible.

The Innocence Clinic has a dozen more wrongful conviction claims pending in Wayne County. Moran cites the case of Lamarr Monson, who was convicted of murdering a 12-year-old girl in 1996.

Under interrogation, Monson admitted to killing the girl with a knife. Big problem: She was bludgeoned to death with a ceramic toilet tank cover. But Monson was locked up anyway. Police lifted bloody fingerprints from the lid, but couldn’t identify them at the time. Now they can, and they belong to a Pennsylvania man.

“It’s hard to believe (Worthy’s office) wouldn’t be holding a press conference demanding the governor of Pennsylvania extradite him,” Moran says.

Instead, Worthy is hunkering down again, fighting to keep Monson in a cell. “They don’t want to admit they made a mistake 21 years ago,” Moran says.

I don’t know what motivates such stubbornness. But it sure ain’t justice.


Twitter: @NolanFinleyDN