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Three men, claiming innocence, seek last-minute pardons from Gov. Snyder

Project Innocence

Three Michigan men who say they were wrongfully convicted hope Gov. Rick Snyder will pardon them before he leaves office.

The University of Michigan’s Innocence Clinic has submitted executive clemency requests for Donyelle Woods, Frederick Freeman, and Mark Craighead.

Innocence Clinic director David Moran says all three make compelling cases for their innocence. But sometimes, courts simply won’t accept new evidence found years later, or set such a high bar for overturning convictions it’s simply impossible to do so.

Moran says that’s where executive clemency comes in. “It’s the fail-safe of the criminal justice system, because courts are often incapable of exonerating people who are manifestly innocent because of court rules and procedural barriers,” he said.

Woods is serving a life sentence for a 2004 Detroit murder. Moran says he was convicted mainly on the testimony of one eyewitness, who later recanted “and admitted she made up the story.” And prosecutors withheld and distorted evidence from an eyewitness who identified another killer who died before Woods’s trial, suggesting that witness had also identified Woods.

“We even have support from the victim’s family, including his mother, who wrote a letter to the parole board” supporting Woods’s release, Moran said.

Frederick Freemanis the highest-profile of the three cases. He was convicted of the 1986 murder of a St. Clair County Community College student—despite the fact that nine eyewitnesses placed him hundreds of miles away, in Escanaba, during the time of the murder. But the prosecutor in the case relied on incredible—and incredibly unproven—assertions, such as that Freeman had chartered a private plane to get to the murder scene. Freeman was convicted mainly on the testimony of a “jailhouse snitch who later recanted” and has been fighting his conviction ever since, Moran says.

Both Woods and Freeman are serving life sentences for murder. But the third man requesting a pardon, Mark Craighead, has been freed on parole. Still, he wants his name cleared and conviction overturned.

Craighead was arrested for allegedly killing a friend five years after the crime actually occurred, “based entirely on a coerced confession that was extracted from him after something like 17 hours of interrogation,” Moran said. “And the confession is completely inconsistent with the crime scene, so it was manifestly false.”

Craighead claimed he was working a night security job at a suburban Sam’s Club during the time of the murder. But that was hard to prove after five years, and he was convicted of manslaughter. Investigators subsequently uncovered records showing that Craighead apparently made phone calls to a friend and his brother from the Sam’s Club during the time of the murder. “But we basically got nowhere in the courts because this evidence was found years after the crime,” Moran said.

The Michigan constitution gives governors wide latitude in issuing pardons. Typically, executives issue the bulk of their pardons during their waning days in office. Snyder, who is term-limited, will be replaced by Governor-elect Gretchen Whitmer Jan. 1.

According to Snyder spokesman Jordan Kennedy, “Gov. Snyder is reviewing the recommendations of the parole board with his legal team. There are dozens of requests for clemency that he is evaluating.”

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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