By Jenny WhalenJan. 24, 2014
One moment. An indiscernible measure of time when compared to the days, months, and years that encompass a lifetime, but no less capable of life-altering change. It took only a moment to read the verdict that wrongfully sent Victor Caminata to prison for arson in 2009 and an identical one to announce his exoneration on Jan. 22.
And though joy was the prevailing emotion in the courtroom as Caminata celebrated that exoneration with family, friends, and his Michigan Innocence Clinic team, feelings were tempered with the knowledge that many more such moments had been lost during the five years Caminata had been wrongfully imprisoned.
"I'm glad this is over with … glad my name has been cleared for me," said Caminata. "It's been a hard road for not only me, but also my family and friends. I plan to spend the rest of my life with my family trying to make up for the time we lost."
Convicted of arson following a fire that destroyed his home in Boon Township, Mich., Caminata was sentenced to serve nine to 40 years in prison for a crime the Michigan Innocence Clinic argues never occurred.
"When you want to explain the failings in this case you don't need an advanced degree in fire science," said David Moran, '91, clinical professor at Michigan Law and director of the Clinic. "If you want to rule out a chimney fire, you should probably look in the chimney," he added, referring to the initial fire investigators' failure to examine the interior of the home's chimney despite concluding that the fire was not accidental and had been set intentionally to look like a chimney fire.
Still, with students facing stacks of research referencing thimble holes, mortar joints, puffed creosote, char marks, and violation of National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 921, Moran readily admits this case, which the Clinic officially accepted in 2011, was a "huge technical challenge."
"The students almost became fire science experts themselves while still learning and applying other legal concepts," he added.
3Ls Emily Goebel and Lexi Bond are two of the students whose knowledge of chimney constructs now rival that of any peer. Both began work on Caminata's case in 2012 and took time from their Chicago summer associate positions to represent Caminata at the July 2013 evidentiary hearing that resulted in his release from prison after the judge vacated his conviction.
"It's rare in the Clinic to see a case from beginning to end, and although I didn't see the entirety of this case, I was there for most of its ups and downs," Goebel said. "We got a man his life back in July. I was in shock. I felt an overwhelming sense of relief and pride in having been part of the journey. We know Victor now and his family and we're happy it turned out the way it did."
"I spent half of my law school career on this case," added Bond. "It helped me to grasp in a real way the concepts you learn in law school, and also to understand the politics of court, which will affect my practice in a positive way. On a personal level, it has been really rewarding."
Caminata had already served five years and two weeks of his sentence when he was released in July 2013, but was forced to wait another six months in legal purgatory as prosecutors looked to retry his case. His state of limbo came to an end Jan. 22, when the Michigan Attorney General's Office announced it was dismissing the charge against him.
Caminata is the eighth exoneree—and second to be exonerated for arson—in the Clinic's five-year history.
The legal team included Clinic director David A. Moran, staff attorney Imran Syed, staff attorney Caitlin Plummer, former co-director (now Michigan Supreme Court Justice) Bridget McCormack, clinical professor Kim Thomas, and former students Blase Schmid, Adam Thompson, Kate O'Connor, Rachel Burg, Zach Dembo, Nick Hambley, Laura Andrade, Jocelin Chang, and Marc Allen, and current students Lexi Bond, Emily Goebel and Claire Madill. Cooperating attorneys James Samuels of Big Rapids, Mich. and Michael A. McKenzie of Atlanta co-counseled the case with the Clinic on a pro bono basis.
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