Editorial: Michigan moving to get justice right

The Detroit News

Michigan is moving in a better direction when it comes to getting justice right. Detroit Police Chief James Craig’s pledge to help those in Wayne County is part of a trend in the state to exonerate the wrongly convicted and make sure innocent people don’t go to prison.

The chief this week met with attorneys from the University of Michigan Innocence Clinic and agreed to partner in finding and investigating evidence to exonerate those serving time for crimes they didn’t commit.

It’s an important step, and a credit to Craig’s commitment to doing things the right way.

And it fits in with other moves over the past few years that should help cut down on the number of innocent people suffering through the living nightmare of being locked up.

On Wednesday, a new state law went into effect that will compensate those who have been wrongly imprisoned. The Wrongful Imprisonment Compensation Act pays those who have been released from prison after proving their innocence $50,000 for each year they were locked up.

That should help them get a new start in life, and also be a strong incentive for prosecutors and courts to tighten up their work. The better course is to avoid wrongful lock-ups in the first place, and the state is also moving in that direction.

Gov. Rick Snyder formed the Michigan Indigent Defense Commission to recommend steps for improving representation of poor defendants. Most of the wrongly convicted cases involve defendants who were represented by court-appointed attorneys.

The indigent defense system is dismal in Michigan, and the goal of the commission is to provide ongoing recommendations for making it better.

Most Michigan law enforcement agencies have already adopted practices to protect suspects from being coerced into confessions, including recording interrogation sessions.

Officers are also getting training in how to avoid leading witnesses when they are brought in to identify suspects.

And now that the Michigan State Police crime lab is handling much of the evidence testing in the state, the analysis is more reliable.

There is still much that can be done to guard against wrongful convictions.

For example, the Michigan Supreme Court should raise the ethical standard for both prosecutors and defense attorneys to make it their duty to disclose evidence helpful to the accused that surfaces after the conviction.

Currently, they must disclose such evidence if it turns up while the prosecution is underway, but the ethical standard doesn’t extend post-conviction. It should.

The court should also establish a clear precedent that all evidence that might exonerate a convict be given a hearing by the courts. Judges now can refuse to admit such evidence if they determine it was available at the time of the trial but not presented by the defense. That’s not fair, and particularly not to defendants who received only sketchy representation from an appointed attorney.

Ideally, crime labs in Michigan should be independently run, apart from police agencies, so that the possibility of tampering is minimized.

Finally, those convicted based on scientific evidence testing techniques should get new hearings if the science changes significantly.

Michigan is heading in the right direction, and should continue the progress it has made in getting justice right.