Finley: Momentum shifts in fight to free innocent
Getting justice right is getting easier in Michigan.
After decades of resistance to the notion that the criminal justice system makes horrible mistakes, police and prosecutors are starting to cooperate with efforts to free those who clearly have been wrongfully convicted.
"It's a different day," says David Moran, who runs the Innocence Clinic at the University of Michigan. "We're making a lot of progress and I'm excited."
Much of the credit for that movement belongs to Moran and his UM team, which has secured the release of 21 wrongly imprisoned convicts since the clinic's founding in 2009.
That persistence in pursuit of justice has helped force prosecutors to own their mistakes.
"We win a bunch of cases, others win a bunch of cases, and momentum builds," Moran says.
Overall, 85 individuals have been exonerated since 1990 in Michigan.
Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy, whose office had been the most stubborn in acknowledging errors, in 2017 named Valerie Newman to head a new conviction integrity unit to examine credible claims of wrongful conviction.
Newman was the attorney for Davontae Sanford, a young man coerced to confess as a 14-year-old to a quadruple murder that he couldn't have possibly committed. Sanford was freed after spending eight years in an adult prison, and became the poster child for botched prosecutions.
Detroit Police Chief James Craig previously had ordered his department to fully cooperate with the UM clinic and other groups working on behalf of convicts claiming their innocence. That was a key step, since the old Detroit police crime lab was responsible for affirming so much bad evidence.
And this week, new Attorney General Dana Nessel added a conviction integrity unit to her office.
"We have a duty to ensure those convicted of state crimes by county prosecutors and our office are in fact guilty of those crimes,” Nessel said in a statement. “By establishing this unit, we will work to make certain those ethical and legal obligations are met while providing justice to those wrongfully imprisoned and keeping dangerous offenders out of Michigan communities.”
Those are words Bridget McCormack has been waiting a long time to hear. The chief justice of the Michigan Supreme Court co-founded UM's innocence clinic.
“From addressing the challenges presented by the flaws in forensic science to compensating individuals who have been wrongly convicted, Michigan is taking important, purposeful steps toward making our justice system fairer and more accountable," McCormack says. "The attorney general’s initiative is an important milestone in recognizing that the system is not perfect but we have the ability to correct mistakes and right wrongs.”
Cooperation by the AG's office should help expedite the scrutiny of evidence and cut years off the time it takes to win a release.
That matters. Moran's team has 20 additional cases it's working on. And by his calculation, hundreds more should be reviewed.
"All credible studies come up with a number between 3 and 5 percent of the prison population are innocent," Moran says. "If that number is true, in Michigan, with 40,000 inmates, there are 1,000 to 1,200 innocent people behind bars."
One innocent person locked up is too many. One thousand is unconscionable.
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