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Innocence Clinic defends wronged prisoners

Daily Staff Reporter
Published February 18, 2009

One Sunday afternoon in downtown Ecorse, Mich., a city just outside of Detroit, DeShawn and Marvin Reed shot Shannon Gholston through the back of Gholston’s gold Ford Contour, paralyzing him from the neck down.

At least, that’s what Gholston testified in 2001.

And despite conflicting eyewitness testimonies, a verified alibi for the Reeds, no physical evidence that tied the uncle and nephew or their car to the scene, and reports of an alternate suspect, a judge sentenced the Reeds to 20 years in prison for assault with intent to commit murder.

But because of law students at the University’s Innocence Clinic, which officially opened its doors this winter semester, the Reeds may now have a shot at reclaiming their freedom.

The clinic, a seven-credit course taught at the Law School, provides upper-level law students with the skills and resources to correct lapses in the state legal system — like the ones that occurred in the Reeds’ case.

Similar programs around the state, including the Innocence Project at the Thomas M. Cooley Law School in Lansing, work to re-examine cases with new evidence that could prove the innocence of convicted persons.

However, the majority of these other clinics only work with cases where new DNA evidence has come to light. The Innocence Clinic is among a handful of programs across the country that focus on cases involving non-DNA evidence.

"We know a lot about the rate of wrongful conditions because of DNA," said Bridget McCormack, co-director of the clinic and associate dean of the Law School, in a phone interview last week. "This suggests that the rate of wrongful convictions without DNA evidence may be just as high, if not higher, than those with DNA evidence."

McCormack and Law Prof. David Moran, the other co-director, began receiving letters from incarcerated prisoners around the state who hoped their cases would be examined by the new clinic, with more than 2,000 arriving in their mailboxes since July.

The prisoners then filled out a 19-page questionnaire, which was developed by the directors as a way for them to sift through the cases and determine which ones they would pursue further, Moran said.

Out of the thousands of cases, six eventually were picked to comprise the clinic’s first batch and then assigned to law students.

Moran said the Reeds’ case is a perfect example of the problems with criminal justice system.

He said the same mistakes are being made “case after case,” and can be broken down into six main factors: incorrect eyewitness accounts, false confessions, flawed science, faulty defense lawyering and jailhouse snitching.

The case of Lorinda Swain, another one of the clinic’s inaugural six, is an example of what Moran calls one of the leading causes of wrongful convictions — overreliance on jailhouse testimony.

Swain was convicted of criminal sexual misconduct in 2001 for allegedly having oral sex with her adoptive son.

The prosecutors on Swain’s case relied solely on the testimony of an incarcerated woman who had been convicted more than 20 times for various charges, including embezzlement, Moran said.

“Whenever this woman went to jail, she always claimed to overhear somebody make a full confession to whatever the prosecution needed them to confess to,” he said. “The Department of Corrections had a notation in this woman’s file that she was not to be trusted. And she was the prosecution’s star witness.”

This practice, coined “jailhouse snitching,” often results in deals and dropped charges for the prisoner who testifies.

The clinic not only benefits prisoners like Swain and the Reeds, but also gives law students hands-on experience since they do most of the work for the clinic.

“What you don't learn in a standard law school class is how to actually try a real case," Moran said.