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Innocence Clinic defends wronged prisoners

BY AMY MUNSLOW
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. "(Students) really become the attorneys for the clients."

Student responsibilities include communicating with witnesses and clients, gathering facts, visiting the crime scene, writing persuasive motions and briefs for the judge and making appearances in court.

Judd Grutman, a second-year law student who works in the Innocence Clinic, said he enjoys applying his classroom knowledge to actual cases.

"It's exciting and incredibly rewarding," he said. "We have all appreciated that you feel like you are putting what you have learned to use."

In light of Michigan’s incarceration rate, which is 10 percent higher than the national average, directors and students at the clinic see the need for information about unjust convictions to be made public.

"Common police practices, by no fault of their own, often end up not getting the right person," said third-year Law student Mary Hanna-Weir, who works in the clinic. "There's a lot that could be done, and it's good to have a more grounded understanding of where the problems are so that we can fix them."

Moran called the criminal justice system "too inaccurate" and said the cases the Innocence Clinic is working on could be used to push for reforms in eyewitness interrogation procedures and crime labs.

Zoe Levine, a third-year law student who is working on the Reeds’ case, said in an e-mail that she’s “outraged by what has happened to the Reeds and to other innocent defendants.” She said she’s excited for the opportunity to “expose some of the systemic problems” in the criminal justice system.

In the Reeds’ case, Levine investigated the conflicting eyewitness testimony, which identified Tyrone Allen, a now deceased man from Detroit, as an alternate suspect.

Witnesses said they saw Allen near the source of the gunshots when they were fired. In addition, Moran said police failed to provide some key information to the defense — Allen's girlfriend said the day Gholston was shot, Allen had told her that he committed the crime.

Allen was killed in Detroit after the Reeds' trial took place, and the gun he was carrying at the time of his death was confirmed to have fired the bullet that paralyzed Gholston.

"(Gholston) blamed the Reeds because he had a longstanding feud with DeShawn Reed," Moran said. "But knowing what he knows now, even he no longer believes that they did it."

The Reeds have spent eight years in prison, and during that time, Gholston has formally admitted three times that his testimony was false, something that Moran views as crucial to proving the Reeds’ innocence.

"We are cautiously optimistic that we will be getting those guys out," he said.