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State Supreme Court reverses murder convictions, orders cases back to trial

Judge's gavel with books

The Michigan Supreme Court has ordered a new trial for three men arrested as teenagers and convicted of murder in 2009. That’s after a Freedom of Information Act request revealed that a transcript of a police interview with a key witness was never turned over to the defense.

The defense was handed a summary of the first police interview with a primary witness. But the public records request turned up a complete transcript that showed inaccuracies and missing information in that summary. Also, it showed inconsistencies between the first interview, a later one, and trial testimony.

The main issue was not whether the prosecution’s failure was wrong. The justices agreed that it was. The question was whether the transcript would have or could have made the difference between conviction or acquittal.

The case was decided on a narrow 4-3 vote of the court. The majority opinion was written by Chief Justice Bridget Mary McCormack, who was joined by the three other Democratic Party-nominated justices.

“One of the foundational principles of our criminal legal system is that the state cannot keep evidence from the accused — especially exculpatory evidence,” she wrote, “but you don’t have to go to law school to understand that fundamental fairness requires the government to disclose evidence that calls an individual’s guilt into question when it charges them with a crime.”

She said it was the weight of the errors and inconsistencies that led to the majority conclusion that a new trial is necessary. The decision, which overruled two lower courts, sends the case back to the Genesee County Circuit Court.

The Republican-nominated justices disagreed with the decision.

Justice Beth Clement wrote the dissent. She said the defense had the chance to challenge the evidence and vigorously cross examine witnesses, noting “inconsistencies are common in eyewitness testimony and do not necessarily render evidence of those inconsistencies material.”

But Clement said there might be a case to be built that the defendants had poor legal representation.

Rick Pluta is Senior Capitol Correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network. He has been covering Michigan’s Capitol, government, and politics since 1987.
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