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Lorinda Swain, once convicted of child abuse, is free

Prison bars
flickr user Thomas Hawk

The Michigan Supreme Court ruled this week that Lorinda Swain, who served more than seven years in prison for child abuse, is entitled to a new trial. And the prosecuting attorney says he’s dropping all charges.

Swain was convicted in 2002 of sexually abusing her adopted son. But her son later recanted and told the court he’d lied about the abuse.

Swain’s attorneys also presented new witness testimony they said made the prosecution’s timeline of the abuse impossible.

And her appeals attorneys also argued the prosecution withheld crucial evidence: a phone call between a now-deceased detective and Swain's ex-boyfriend, who told that detective he'd never witnessed any abuse.

The defense says didn't call that ex-boyfriend to testify on Swain's behalf, because the two were estranged and hostile at the time of the trial. But, the attorneys argue, if the defense had known the ex-boyfriend was a strong witness, that would have helped Swain convince the jury she was innocent.

A Calhoun County judge ruled she deserved a new trial, and let her out on bond. But the case dragged on for years as the Court of Appeals overruled that judge’s decision two separate times.

The case drew statewide interest from the legal field as it went before the Supreme Court. The University of Michigan’s Innocence Clinic represented Swain on appeal.

And a group of nine current and former prosecutors even filed a brief supporting Swain, asking the court: “If it is not contrary to the law for an actually innocent person to be locked up for a crime she never committed, what value is the law?”

But Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette argued that Swain’s legal team hadn’t met the heightened threshold required for a new trial, especially after a jury’s found a defendant is guilty.

For one thing, he argued, the ex-boyfriend wasn’t a slam-dunk witness for the defense, because he wasn’t present at all locations where the abuse allegedly occurred. And even if he could help Swain’s case, nothing actually prevented Swain’s original defense team from vetting him themselves to see if he’d be hostile on the stand.

“To obtain relief based on an assertion of actual innocence, a convicted defendant must show that she is innocent, not just that reasonable doubt exists,” Schuette says in his brief.

On Wednesday, the Supreme Court released a one-page ruling reversing the Court of Appeals, and sending Swain’s case back to Calhoun Circuit Court for a new trial.

And that ruling was quickly followed by an announcement from the prosecutor: they would not be retrying Lorinda Swain.

“We respect the Supreme Court’s decision,” says Calhoun County Prosecuting Attorney David E. Gilbert. “We disagree with it, but we respect it. There will not be another trial.”

Swain’s attorneys say they expect the charges to be dismissed as soon as possible.

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.
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