U-M Innocence Clinic triumphs
By Jared Wadley, U-M News Service
The University of Michigan Law School’s Innocence Clinic triumphed in its first two major cases during the summer, convincing judges in separate cases to release three prisoners because of new evidence that the defendants were innocent.
Marvin Reed, 42, and his nephew Deshawn, 33, spent nearly a decade in prison for assault with intent to commit murder in a 2000 shooting. On July 10, Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Patricia Fresard overturned their convictions and their 20-year sentences.
The Reeds were convicted solely on the basis of the shooting victim’s testimony and despite the testimony of numerous alibi witnesses and two eyewitnesses who implicated another man, Tyrone Allen, in the shooting.
Marvin Reed (left-to-right), Innocence Clinic co-directors Bridget McCormack and David Moran, and Deshawn Reed listen to the testimony of shooting victim Shannon Gholston, who was left a quadriplegic. Gholston testified on April 1 that the Reeds were not involved in the shooting.
After the trial, the defense learned that the gun used in the shooting had been found on Allen, and numerous witnesses, including Allen’s girlfriend, came forward with testimony that Allen had admitted the shooting to them. The victim, Shannon Gholston, admitted that he had not actually seen the Reeds at the scene of the shooting.
"The new evidence in this case amounts to proof beyond any reasonable doubt … that Marvin and Deshawn Reed are completely innocent," clinic co-director and 1991 Michigan Law grad David Moran said.
Fresard, in her ruling, seemed inclined to agree. "There is a significant possibility that the defendants are innocent of the crimes," she said.
Law student Zoe Levine described the experience as incredible when she spoke to Deshawn Reed on the telephone after he heard the news.
"I have always had an acute awareness of the enormous stakes in this case, but hearing Deshawn cry with joy and relief at the result was overwhelming," Levine said. "He has lost so much time."
After their release from jail July 31, the Reeds thanked the Innocence Clinic and said they planned to spend time with their families and friends. "To be honest, I never thought this day would come," Deshawn Reed said.
In a second case handled by the clinic, Calhoun County Circuit Court Judge Conrad Sindt ordered the new trial for Lorinda Swain, who was convicted in 2002 of performing oral sex on her son, Ronnie some five years earlier when the boy was 6 to 9 years old. Since the trial, Ronnie has repeatedly recanted his story to the police, to the news media, and in court, indicating that he lied because he was caught inappropriately touching his niece.
The 48-year-old woman, whose sentence was 25 to 50 years, has spent more than eight years in prison. During the June hearing, the clinic called two disinterested witnesses who flatly contradicted Ronnie’s trial testimony, but were never called during the original trial, and Ronnie himself.
"This court finds, considering the testimony … that there is a significant possibility ... that the Defendant is innocent of all the offenses with which she was charged," Sindt wrote in his ruling.
A new trial had not been scheduled, as of Aug. 1.
The Innocence Clinic, which opened in January, represents inmates like the Reeds and Swain that they believe to have been wrongfully convicted in cases where biological evidence like DNA does not exist. Other innocence clinics throughout the country specialize in DNA exonerations.
Bridget McCormack, associate dean of clinical affairs and clinic-co-director, said DNA exonerations indicate that "the rate of wrongful conviction is not insignificant, and we know what goes wrong to cause these injustices."
"Bad lawyering is almost always a factor and Michigan’s assigned counsel system is among the nation’s worst, so there are thousands of wrongfully convicted prisoners in Michigan," McCormack said.
The Innocence Clinic is one of 14 clinics at the Law School, enabling students to move beyond the theory of the classroom into the real-world practice of law.
Michigan Court Rules allow students to investigate and litigate cases on behalf of clients, always under the supervision of faculty. They interview witnesses, negotiate with opposing counsel, make legal arguments before judges, and handle contested hearings. Students also develop expertise in client counseling, discovery, legal writing, and trial skills.
The law students discuss and debate potential cases, getting feedback from classmates, McCormack and Moran. It’s not uncommon for students to spend countless hours reviewing court transcripts, poring over files and documents and contacting witnesses.
Judd Grutman, a second-year law student from Los Angeles, said he carefully speaks to witnesses "as not to show our cards too much in pointing fingers or making it look like we are going after the people we think actually did it."
Students work in their 10th floor office in the University of Michigan Law School's Legal Research building. Judd Grutman, a second-year law student from Los Angeles, said the invigorating and rewarding work in the Innocence Clinic helped focus his interests relative to the law. "This clinic is all about making things happen," he said.
"We have to make sure that we present ourselves as merely helping our client," he explained. "We do not want people to believe that we are trying to pin the crime on others."
Since last summer, the clinic has received more than 3,000 letters from convicted Michigan prisoners and their family members. Each inmate must complete a 19-page questionnaire to be considered by the clinic.
Law students carefully review the questionnaires and new cases every two weeks, working in groups of two. "For some cases, there is nothing we can do," said Katie Brooks, a second-year law student from Ypsilanti, Mich.
Students say they must be selective with cases.
"This is not because we are cynics and do not believe the prospective clients," Grutman said, "rather we make sure as a class that we can make traction with the leads we have, that these issues are still ripe (in that we can actually litigate them) and that the client is, in fact, innocent."