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New federal grant, partnership could bring more Wayne County innocence cases to light

A DNA self-collection kit.
Pelle Sten
Creative Commons
A DNA self-collection kit.

A new federal grant could help exonerate more wrongfully convicted people from Wayne County.

It marks the start of a partnership between Western Michigan University’s Cooley Law School Innocence Project, and the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Conviction Integrity Unit.

The $451,238 U.S. Justice Department grant will help the two units work together on possible innocence cases involving DNA evidence. It will also pay for more personnel in both offices, outside consultants and advanced forensic testing.

Innocence Project director Marsha Mitchell-Cichon says that in the past, her team has spent a lot of time finding and requesting old case records and forensic evidence from Wayne County. She says the grant-funded partnership should dramatically speed up that process.

“Our goal is to then work directly with the Conviction Integrity Unit to determine appropriate cases for DNA testing, rather than us doing all of that legwork on our own, and then filing a request in court,” Mitchell-Cichon said.

“That’ll free up our time to actually focus on the heart of the matter, which is: would testing the evidence in this case have an impact on the integrity of the conviction? And that’s the goal of both of our offices, to get to the truth of that.”

Valerie Newman, director of the Conviction Integrity Unit, says the two units will work together “on cases where there’s credible claims of innocence.” It’s believed to be the first such collaboration between a prosecutor’s office and an innocence project in the state.

Newman said the grant will allow her office and the Innocence Project to track down evidence and put together cases where they find DNA-tested evidence may be determinative much faster. Their goal is to resolve 300 cases in two years, which Newman calls “ambitious.”

Newman said 40-50% of the case investigation requests her office has received from prisoners claiming innocence involve some type of forensic, though not necessarily DNA evidence.

Wayne County’s Conviction Integrity Unit has only been running since January of this year, but Newman says it’s already received nearly 600 case investigation requests.

“I’m very happy about [the grant], because given the volume of cases and the small number of staff that I have…it always weighs on me that every person in this unit is maintaining their innocence,” Newman said.

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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