Editorial: Free Lorinda Swain now
Once it’s been gotten wrong, it’s harder than it should be to get justice right. That’s particularly true in Michigan, where cops, courts and prosecutors are loathe to correct even their most glaring mistakes.
Michigan’s Supreme Court on Wednesday will have the chance to get justice right for Lorinda Swain. It will be perhaps her last chance.
Swain was convicted in 2002 of sexually abusing her son. The boy was 14 when he accused his mother of molesting him between the ages of 3 and 5. He’d just been accused of sexual misconduct himself, and the connection was made by investigators between his actions and the abuse he claims to have suffered at the hands of his mother.
Swain was convicted and spent more than seven years in prison before her son, as an adult, recanted his story and she was granted a new trial in Calhoun County Circuit Court. After a confirming polygraph and corroborating testimony, Judge Conrad Sindt’s order made clear that he had “no doubt about” Swain’s innocence.
“The validity and wisdom of the guilty verdicts which this court has previously found to be unsupportable are called into even greater question,” he ruled.
But the Calhoun County prosecutor appealed, and the Michigan Court of Appeals reinstated her conviction, ruling the new evidence Swain presented came too late, and that witnesses who testified on her behalf in the second trial could have been called in the first.
The primary witness in question is Swain’s ex-boyfriend, with whom she’d had a nasty breakup before the first trial and wasn’t sure he would tell the truth.
Dave Moran of the Innocence Project at the University of Michigan convinced the state Supreme Court to hear the case, and it will do so on Wednesday.
He is claiming the prosecution withheld key evidence favorable to Swain, namely an interview with the ex-boyfriend.
An amicus brief has been filed by several former state and federal prosecutors who have reviewed the case and are convinced the prosecution is allowing procedural arguments to prevail. “Lawyers, and prosecutors in particular, have an affirmative obligation to act in furtherance of justice,” the brief states. “No evidence should be sufficient to decide the guilt of a person who is actually innocent.”
If Swain, now in her 50s, loses, she must return to prison to serve out the remainder of her 25- to 50-year sentence.
Moran intends to argue on Wednesday the only thing more egregious than releasing a criminal on a legal technicality is jailing an innocent person on one.
The law should not be a slave to its letters. Barring evidence that could prove innocence based on a technical reading of the law does not serve justice.
The Supreme Court with this case could send a strong message to Michigan’s legal system that its primary mission is not to get a conviction and stand stubbornly by it, but to get justice right, no matter how long it takes.