Monthly Archives: May 2015

Meet the Devolders: Florida couple make law school work for them – and succeed.

Going to law school was a hard decision, but really, it was the right one for Tampa Bay area couple Bryan and Elizabeth Devolder. The easy part was recognizing and knowing that a legal career was something they both wanted to do. The hard part was making sure it could work for them; given that they both came from management positions, making good salaries, and working around family life and the day-to-day responsibilities that go along with it.

Bryan and Elizabeth did what anyone should do when looking into making an important, life-changing decision – set aside the emotional drivers, look at the pros and cons, then do the math. They also looked at the big picture, not just short term obstacles. Bryan Devolder first posed the questions, “Where do we see ourselves five -10 years from now?”  They wanted the opportunities and open doors that a law degree would bring. Among the options – running their own law firm. The Devolders like the idea of “making our own decisions, and creating our own future.”

By quantifying the investment (salary calculator) – seeing if going back to law school would financially pay off – both Bryan and Elizabeth felt they could justify their decision to go back to law school. Even while allowing for a temporary salary decrease in the first few years of learning a new career, and calculating only mid-range salaries as their experience grew, the long term showed a likely and significant salary increase for both of them, and with plenty of years to enjoy that increase before retirement.

Visualizing Your Future is very important to the couple, along with taking control of what you can. Bryan worked in IT for a Fortune 100 company, and although his salary was good, he had limited opportunity for further growth. He asked himself, “Is this what I want to be doing for the rest of my life?” He wasn’t ready to accept that he had reached his maximum potential, nor that he had reached his maximum salary. They both envisioned greater career success.

Elizabeth and Bryan Devolder holding their national award for the ABA Client Competition

Elizabeth and Bryan Devolder holding their national award for the ABA Client Competition

Not Your Traditional Students
“I’ve seen it happen with so many friends and colleagues, said Bryan Devolder. “Mid-career professionals that find themselves out of a job through no fault of their own – then they can’t find a job. Finding a job is always easier when you have a job, not when you are out of work.”

Elizabeth Devolder described the challenge. “People usually wait to make a change until they are: 1) unhappy, 2) unhealthy, 3) unsafe, or 4) insecure. And by then, financial and emotional resources may be too low to jump to the next adventure. Think about what you can gain.”

Another good question to ask yourself according to the Devolders: What happens if you do nothing? Could you be laid off, downsized, marginalized or forced to work in a job or environment, or for a boss, that you find unpleasant? The Devolders took control of their destiny by adding marketable skills that would improve their ability to compete for any job, and provide an opportunity to strike out on their own.

Mom and Student
“It’s scary to go back to school at nearly 40 years old,” stated Elizabeth Devolder. “When I made the mid-career decision to stay home for a few years and have babies, I found that I could also use this time to improve my skills for when I return to work. I even had a baby while in school. I didn’t want career to get in the way of family, so we have been doing it all. There are certainly days where it is hard, but I am so excited to show my children that learning is a lifelong activity. I’m creating better opportunities, not only for me, but for them as well.”

Experience Good for Them, Good for Family, Good for Our Future

Applying Practical Experience – the Secret Sauce
According to Bryan Devolder, what really connected the dots for him was the chance to take everything they had learned in law school and then doing it for real – an opportunity they didn’t feel they would have had anywhere else. Participating in WMU-Cooley’s client competition while in law school gave both Bryan and Elizabeth the kind of experience you only see as an attorney.  In their mind, it is the client interaction and relationship building that is going to make you a successful attorney.

Great Coaching: We Didn’t Get There Alone
The coaching was nothing short of amazing, according to the Devolders. “It felt like she (Dean Christine Church) told us exactly what we needed to know right before we needed to know it,” proclaimed Elizabeth Devolder. “Many other schools didn’t even send coaches to the competition; WMU-Cooley’s faculty investment shows how much they value practical application of skills that lead to real success.”

Great Teammates: Collaborating Across All Campuses
Team Devolder also thought their teammates were really great and supportive, despite the fact that they were from other campuses in Michigan. “We could see them, they could see us (using the technology available today), we would do a role play, they would be able to critique us, we could do the same for them. There was absolutely no barrier. It was nice to see that you could establish that close of a relationship with other students, even across the country.”

The National Competition Experience
The Devolders competed against the top 12 teams in the country – one from each region, and represented WMU-Cooley in its region. They took first place at the American Bar Association (ABA) Law Student Division Client Counseling Competition National Finals. Bryan thought the competition was very challenging and it felt like the real deal. “We got some very unique training, and some very unique practice, that we wouldn’t have gotten anywhere else,” stated Bryan Devolder.

Expanding Opportunities
The Devolders are excited about a variety of ways they can use their new degree.  Although opening a firm, or working for one, is a strong possibility, Bryan and Elizabeth can also leverage the experience they gained in the previous careers in IT and sales. “The legal field is large, and many of the opportunities fall outside the traditional image of a lawyer.  Many industries are affected now, more than ever, by legal considerations.  Someone who knows the law and also has experience in a particular industry, such as IT, nursing, psychology, public relations, journalism, real estate, accounting, or engineering, to name a few, has the potential to be valuable to both law firms AND corporations.  A law degree can help set you above other applicants, even for an operational or non-lawyer position.”

Bryan and Elizabeth were the cover feature in the summer 2015 Benchmark Alumni Magazine.


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After 26 years in prison, Gilbert Poole may get another chance at justice

WMU-Cooley Innocence Project Director Marla Mitchell-Cichon

WMU-Cooley Innocence Project Director Marla Mitchell-Cichon

On June 22, 1989, Gilbert Lee Poole, Jr. was sentenced to life in prison without parole for murder. At the sentencing hearing, the judge asked Poole what he wanted to say before being sentenced. Mr. Poole replied, “About the only thing I can say is, I’m not guilty of the crime I was convicted of. I’ve never committed murder and I never will. That’s just the way it came out at trial.”

For more than 26 years, Gilbert Poole has maintained his innocence and has asked the courts to listen to his story — a much different story than the one told at his 1989 trial. That’s the problem with innocence. If you are wrongfully convicted, then the story at trial can’t possibly be the actual story. But you have no effective means of telling a different story from the one told at trial. You might say, “You had your chance.” And Gilbert Poole, unlike many criminal defendants, testified — he told his his story — at trial. But when the state presents four witnesses who say you were the man who left the bar with the victim the night of the murder, an odontologist who says the only person who could have left his teeth marks on the victim’s arm is you, and your ex-partner says you confessed to the murder, your story isn’t heard.

Gradution day for Angela Easterday, former Western Michigan University Cooley Law School Innocence Project intern, now an assistant prosecuting attorney

Gradution day for Angela Easterday, former Western Michigan University Cooley Law School Innocence Project intern, now an assistant prosecuting attorney

WMU-Cooley Innocence Project students have listened to Gilbert Poole’s story since 2003. Project students have spent countless hours developing and revising case plans to locate evidence and obtain DNA testing in Mr. Poole’s case. While meeting with Mr. Poole before the argument in the Court of Appeals, Mr. Poole asked intern Angela Easterday, “What is your Achilles heel?” He wanted to know what might rattle her during the argument. Easterday, a third-year law student at the time, not only wasn’t rattled during her first court appearance, she was complimented by the Court of Appeals judges on her performance. But the Court of Appeals ruled against Poole in September, 2014.

Last week, the Michigan Supreme Court reversed that decision and ordered the Court of Appeals to decide Poole’s case on the merits of his request for DNA testing. “When I heard the news of the Michigan Supreme Court’s reversal in Mr. Poole’s case, I was so proud that justice was served,” Easterday said. “Justice is not convicting a person. Justice is about convicting the right person. DNA testing in this case would provide additional evidence that may change the story presented at trial. Working with the Innocence Project and, particularly on Mr. Poole’s case, has allowed me to remain impartial and objective in my work, now, as an assistant prosecuting attorney.”

Former WMU-Cooley Innocence Project intern Stephanie Hale

Former WMU-Cooley Innocence Project intern Stephanie Hale

Former intern Stephanie Hale wrote the brief filed for the Michigan Supreme Court: “When I heard the news about the Poole decision, it really brought home how the services of the Innocence Project can help change someone’s life. This case really challenged me, but working with Mr. Poole and seeing his trust in our work was indescribable. I learned about the true meaning of justice first-hand.”

JULY 8, 2015 UPDATE: Watch the Detroit WDIV Local 4 TV story

“After almost 12 years of investigative and legal work, the WMU-Cooley Law School Innocence Project has obtained an order for DNA testing in People v. Poole,” stated Professor Marla Mitchell-Cichon, director of WMU-Cooley’s Innocence Project and co-director of the Access to Justice Clinic. “Mr. Poole was convicted of murder in 1988. On Wednesday, the Michigan Court of Appeals ordered DNA testing, agreeing with the Project’s  interpretation of MCL 770.16, Michigan’s post-conviction DNA testing law.  (At Cooley, we know our statutory interpretation rules and how to apply them!) In 2012, the Oakland County Circuit Court denied DNA testing based on its faulty statutory interpretation of MCL 770.16 The Michigan Supreme Court ordered the Court of Appeals to review the case on the merits in May. Former intern Angela Easterday (now Calhoun County assistant prosecutor) wrote an excellent COA brief. This case demonstrates that you should never give up on justice. Mr. Poole has been litigating his case for 26 years. He received his first two court victories in the last two months. Keep the faith.” 
 Professor Marla Mitchell Cichon has extensive practice experience in criminal and poverty law. Professor Mitchell’s litigation experience includes practicing before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, the Ohio Supreme Court, and trial courts in both Ohio and Michigan. She joined the WMU-Cooley Law School faculty in July 1995 and teaches in the Sixty Plus, Inc., Elderlaw Clinic and is the Director of WMU-Cooley’s Innocence Project.

The WMU-Cooley Innocence Project’s dual mission is to provide legal assistance to, and secure the release of, individuals who are wrongfully imprisoned for crimes they did not commit and to provide students with an excellent learning experience. One of the most important skills a lawyer can have is to be a good listener. In WMU-Cooley’s clinics we teach students to be effective listeners. We teach client-centered interviewing and counseling, we engage students in role-plays. We train our students to listen carefully to their clients’ stories. And from those stories, develop effective advocacy strategies to obtain their clients’ goals.

More on WMU-Cooley’s Innocence Project

Innocence Project Wins Ruling – Fights to Overturn 1989 Murder Conviction – May 22, 2015

Innocence Project Team Join in Push for Compensation to Wrongfully Convicted – May 11, 2015

Exoneree Donya Davis rejoicing: Gets to spend his first Mother’s Day with his mom after 7 years on prison – May 10, 2015

WMU-Cooley’s Innocence Project Gains Freedom for Yet Another Wrongfully Convicted Man – Nov. 10, 2014

Cooley’s Innocence Project Gains Freedom For Wrongfully Imprisoned Man – June 20, 2014

When Science Fails Us and We Fail Justice – Nov. 25, 2012


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The Public Defender: First Line of Defense to Ensure Right to Fair Trial

Julianne M. Holt Public Defender of Hillsborough County 13th Judicial Circuit

Julianne M. Holt, Public Defender of Hillsborough County

Before being elected as Public Defender of Hillsborough County in 1993, Julianne Holt served as special court appointed public defender from 1987-1992 and was in private law practice from 1981-1992. In this role, Holt manages the largest criminal defense entity in Hillsborough County, Florida, with 223 employees. She also directs the representation of over 60,000 cases annually. She and her office have consistently donated their time, financial support and talent to aid organizations, students and citizens, both locally and nationally. On March 20, 2015, Julianne M. Holt, Public Defender of Hillsborough County, spoke to WMU-Cooley Law School students, honoring the 40th anniversary of the Gideon v. Wainwright decision.

John Adams once said, “No man in a free country should be denied a right to counsel and a fair trial.”   In Gideon, the Supreme Court decided that states under the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution have an obligation to provide counsel to those being tried in a criminal case who do not have the financial ability to afford an attorney. The ruling paved the way for a public defender system in this country.

Holt pointed out that public defenders are the first line of defense. Public defenders help to ensure that those who are unable to afford counsel can be given a fair trial.  Ensuring a fair trial becomes difficult when the crimes committed are so horrible that public calls for swift justice. In her presentation, Ms. Holt recounted a time in American history, after the Boston Massacre, when an attorney defended some of the British soldiers. As a result of this representation, the attorney lost half of the clients he represented in his practice. How often do we, in our personal lives, determine an individual’s guilt based on the court of public opinion or based on the opinion of the new media?

Through Gideon, a line of defense was created. This line of defense, known as the public defender, helps ensure that each of us is never denied a right to a fair trial. The public defender defends this right, even when it takes great courage to do so.

Watch, in full (34:46 min.), the May 21, 2015 presentation Gideon: A Retrospective – Julianne M. Holt, Public Defender, 13th Judicial Circuit Court, Hillsborough County, Florida.

WMU-Cooley faculty, staff and students join the Hon. Julianne Holt. in her discussion on civil liberties and, in it, the role of the public defender.

WMU-Cooley faculty, staff and students join the Hon. Julianne Holt. in her discussion on civil liberties and, in it, the role of the public defender.

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WMU-Cooley Professor Jeffrey Swartz: Assuring Accurate Legal Expert Commentary for ABC Action News

Working with the Media: Ms. Wendy Ryan, anchor and reporter, ABC Action News, Tampa, and WMU-Cooley Law School Tampa Bay campus Professor Jeffrey Swartz

Working with the Media: Ms. Wendy Ryan, anchor and reporter, ABC Action News, Tampa, and WMU-Cooley Law School Tampa Bay campus Professor Jeffrey Swartz

As much as every news affiliate is looking for a story, reporters and news sources are always in need of someone who can take personal opinion out of a story and replace it with a professional and objective account of a story – no matter how controversial. Many also can argue that literally every story has the potential to have a legal viewpoint.

Enter WMU-Cooley Law School Professor Jeffrey Swartz — Tampa, Florida’s ABC Action News legal authority and go-to source on any of the many timely and important topics of the day. Outside of teaching WMU-Cooley law students about criminal law and criminal procedure, Professor Swartz also spends time instructing and working with reporters from ABC Action News as their dedicated legal expert. He is charged with taking even the most emotional and controversial topic or story and explaining to viewers what is going on or what is going to happen in an objective, professional and legal manner.

“It is important to me that the public understands the importance of each and every case upon which I render an opinion,” stated Swartz. “That is why I spend time with each reporter with whom I work to provide insight making their report, to assure that the viewers get accurate information on trials and other issues from the broadcast media. It is always about getting it right. Just as attorneys are held to a code of professional responsibility, so are journalists.  It’s important to me when working with the media to set high professional and ethical standards in my role as professor, attorney and former judge. Everyone has an opinion, but the story must be guided by the truth and the law.”

Here are just some of the topics covered by Professor Swartz on ABC Action News:

Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage lawsuits could impact Florida

Lawsuit targets Polk SO, Sheriff Grady Judd

Former Polk teacher, Jennifer Fichter, pleads guilty to having sex with students

Defense allowed to recreate theater shooting

Movie Theater Shooting Victim’s Wife Emotional in Court

WMU-Cooley Law School Professor Jeffrey Swartz served as a county court judge for Miami-Dade County, Florida, where he presided over criminal and civil cases, and as senior trial counsel in commercial litigation and criminal defense for Rosenthal, Rosenthal Rasco Kaplan, LLC; and Miller, Kagan, Rodriguez and Silver, before joining the WMU-Cooley faculty.  He also served as a member of the faculty of the Conference of County Court Judges, as well as for the faculty of the College of Advanced Judicial Studies. He served three terms as a member and chair of the Florida Supreme Court Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee and is serving a four year term on the Florida Bar Standing Committee on the Rules of Criminal Procedure. At WMU-Cooley, Professor Swartz teaches Criminal Law and Criminal Procedure, along with being the legal expert for ABC Action News.

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‘Don’t Be the Dog in the Basket’ – Solo Practice Expert Shares How to Use True Stories to Help Clients Understand Need for Lawyer Expertise

WMU-Cooley Professor Gary Bauer

WMU-Cooley Professor Gary Bauer

Professor Gary Bauer has been a member of the full-time faculty at WMU-Cooley Law School since 1998. He has worked as a criminal defense attorney, as litigation director for the school’s Sixty Plus Inc., Elderlaw Clinic, and now is a professor teaching Estate Planning to third-year law students and a directed study class he created called Solo By Design. He was appointed to the chairmanship of the General Practice Solo Concentration in 1999 and to the executive committee of the Institute for Continuing Legal Education in 2015. In January 2015, Professor Bauer began his blog,, to provide law students, recent solo practioners, and seasoned professionals who wish to go solo, with information and resources to be successful in the legal business. The following blog post was first published on March 11, 2015.

 “Can’t Do That On LegalZoom”

The title above appears on a t-shirt that my students gave me which has the LegalZoom™ logo on it. Above it in felt-tip marker is written “Can’t do that on.” They also signed it on the back. The reason they gave me that shirt is that they heard me describe how online legal services are not always the best possible alternative for individuals during my Estate Planning class.

Don’t get me wrong, many individuals will not seek the services of a lawyer, and without Legalzoom™ they would not seek assistance of any sort. Some individuals will always look for more efficient ways to accomplish their goals. And to their credit, Legalzoom™ is one of the entities providing a service that appears to have met an unmet need. Many lawyers see this and other legal access sites as their impending doom and a major game changer for legal services for the future. I see it somewhat differently.

A True Story

For example, as a high school student exactly 50 years ago, I was employed at a veterinary clinic on weekends. At that clinic, there were over 60 cages which were used to house animals who were recovering from medical interventions. The majority of them, however, were used to board animals for a fee. One of my tasks was to take the animals (usually dogs) and put them in “runs” so they could get exercise. Meanwhile, I cleaned their cages and refreshed their water and food. One of the animals boarded almost every weekend was a German Shepherd. The “owners” would bring the dog to the clinic for the weekend and pick him up on Mondays.

Let me describe that animal. He was full-grown and always carried into the clinic in a padded basket. The reason he didn’t come in on a leash was that he couldn’t walk. In fact, all he did was lay on his side. Periodically, using the muscles of the trunk of his body, he would rise a few inches. He was paralyzed in his extremities. His eyes would often be matted and it was essential that he be placed on a lamb’s fleece and turned periodically. I was astonished at the condition of this dog when I first saw him and asked the veterinarian, why this was so?

The vet explained that the couple had been charged with the care of this dog after the owner had passed away. He said that it was his understanding that they were being paid a monthly stipend to care for the dog as long as it lived. He also explained that the affliction of that animal occurred after the original owner had passed away. Personally, I found it objectionable that they would keep that dog alive. As I look back, as a skeptic, I feel their motives were suspect and that the money was the object of their affection, not the welfare of that dog.

The lesson? Unintended consequences may flow from your carefully laid plans, as in this case. Be careful what you wish for! You love your pet and put in place what you believe are safeguards to protect your dog after you pass away. You establish a pet trust to insure that your dog is cared for after you are gone. As a result of this experience, if I established a trust for a pet, I would provide for a trusted, uncompensated, third party with powers to intervene and terminate the trust under certain circumstances consistent with the welfare of the animal. But that advice is personal to me and would flow from my legal education and experience. The owner of that dog would have probably been horrified at the outcome, and no cost would be too great to prevent such a miscarriage of their intent.

“Can’t Get That On LegalZoom™”

This brings me to the title of this post, which happens to be on my t-shirt and the connection to this story. I hear many attorneys lament the development of legal resources on the internet and the potential they have to affect their bottom line. I couldn’t disagree more. Examples like the one above demonstrate that there will always be a place for good legal counsel which cannot be accessed online. All of my students inquire of their clients whether they have any pets to help the client make well-reasoned decisions concerning their care after the client dies. The least valuable outcome for any client is the document itself. It is the counseling that goes into informed decision-making and execution on that plan that has the greatest value. It really requires someone experienced enough to see the potential “parade of horrors” that may dominate the ultimate outcomes of a client’s best laid plans. They can do it on their own, but they risk the “dog in a basket” outcome. And after the person dies, who will probate the estate? The counseling before preparation and later execution of that plan is where the greatest skill must be employed. As you will notice, even websites of self-prepared documents offer to connect the applicant with attorneys for the legal advice that that person may wish to consult. The problem is that the self-help individual may not have the ability to understand that there are legal or practical considerations that can only be the product of education and experience.

“Experience is a hard teacher. She gives the test first and the lessons afterwards.” – Anonymous

Recently one of my students came back from the Register of Deeds Office in our county. When the Registrar heard the student say that she was in her third year of law school, the Registrar told her to try to get individuals to seek her services in drafting their deeds. The reason for this was that the Registrar’s office gave blank deeds to individuals who sought them as a service to the community. As long as those deeds were in “record-able form” the Registrar was obligated to record them. However, she explained, “they are usually full of errors in the legal descriptions or types of estates granted.” And the Registrar is prohibited from giving legal advice. So she must record those “messes” as she described them.  She found it extremely frustrating to see this going on, but could not intercede or offer any legal advice.

Many of the errors introduced or poor planning decisions eventually will play out in some fashion. True, some are harmless and can be rectified without too much difficulty. But how many of those errors cost more in the rectification, which then offsets the “savings” realized in the initial creation of that legal document? The solution is better public awareness of the types of legal conundrums people routinely find themselves in by the Bar or the ABA. Everyday another example of misplaced or misunderstood actions by non-attorneys crosses my desk in one way or another.

The Lesson For You

If you have been in practice for any length of time, you know the value of good counsel. We need to do a better job of helping the potential client understand why a lawyer’s knowledge and experience in the process is “invaluable.” Tell them a “true story” of your own so they understand the value of your service. See “Sell The Sizzle, Not The Steak”, an earlier post on this blog for suggestions how you might do that.


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Aging parents should plan ahead to avoid being another exploitation or scam statistic

Professor Kimberly O'Leary

Professor Kimberly E. O’Leary

Western Michigan University Cooley Law School Professor Kimberly O’Leary supervises and teaches third-year law students in its Sixty Plus, Inc. Elderlaw Clinic. The clinic works to help older adults by drafting documents to help them plan for the future, allowing them to maintain independence for as long as possible. Professor O’Leary has written extensively in the field of attorney-client counseling, housing law, diversity training, the relationship between social justice goals and clinical law offices and clinical teaching.

All of us see news stories from time to time about older adults who fall prey to bad actors who find ways to steal money, homes and other resources. Most older people have an intense desire to stay in their own homes, even as they age and sometimes become frail. Many cannot afford to hire professional caregivers, and often do not have family or friends who can provide the care they need.

Some of these frail adults are taken in by people who promise life-long care in exchange for the transfer of assets such as a family home or bank accounts. Such adults are often isolated and unable to reach for help after realizing they have fallen victim to unethical schemes.

Don’t let aging adults become a victim. It can be avoided. All it takes is some planning and putting that plan into place.

Sixty Plus student, Andrew Warshaw, recently wrote a piece in the Ingham County Bar Briefs offering advice to seniors on how to avoid being the victim of telephone scams. Lawyers can also help older adults plan for the future. By having an attorney draft a plan, or by appointing a trusted family member or friend to help you with a plan, you can avoid making tragic mistakes. If you or someone you know is 60 or older in need of legal assistance, Sixty Plus might be able to help. Sixty Plus is a national award-winning program providing quality legal services for over 30 years serving those in Michigan’s Eaton, Ingham, and Clinton Counties. Sixty Plus was selected by Elder Law of Michigan, Inc. as this year’s recipient of the Call to Justice Founder’s Award.  The award recognizes those advocates  who have made a significant or meaningful impact on the aging community.

Professor O’Leary has presented papers at the UCLA/University of London International Clinical Scholarship Conference and the New York Clinical Theory Workshop. Most recently she has written in an Elder Law of Michigan Blog about how to incorporate specific language to help flag and prevent exploitation and how to encourage adults to discuss their need with those they trust long before such help is needed.

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Exoneree Donya Davis rejoicing: Gets to spend his first Mother’s Day with his mom after 7 years in prison

Donya Davis gives his mom, Denise Larry, a big hug on the Capitol steps after a news conference on May 7, 2015, introducing Senator Steve Bieda's bill to provide compensation to the wrongfully convicted.

Donya Davis gives his mom, Denise Larry, a big hug after a news conference introducing Sen. Steve Bieda’s bill to provide compensation to the wrongfully convicted.

WMU-Cooley Innocence Project’s most recent exoneree Donya Davis was choked up just thinking about this Mother’s Day.

“It means the world to me that I’m here for Mother’s Day this year because last Mother’s Day we both cried for the whole day,” remembered Davis. “We were back and forth on the phone, just so we could hear each other’s voices. This Mother’s Day is like a dream come true.”

Donya’s mom, Denise Larry, knows that this Mother’s Day is going to be special, like no other.

“Mother’s Day to me this year will be the most special day of my life,” exclaimed Larry. “On this day, my heart won’t be broken; my soul will be free to enjoy life again. I can hug my son and listen to his jokes all day.”

She never stopped fighting for her son’s freedom. The fight took an economic and emotional toll on both of them.  Donya missed many milestones in his mother’s and his children’s lives, not to mention any possible educational and employment opportunities he might have had during those lost years.

WMU-Cooley Innocence Project Director Marla Mitchell-Cichen hugs Ken Wyniemko, the projects first exoneree in June 2003 and its latest exoneree Donya Davis, found innocent in November 2014.

WMU-Cooley Innocence Project Director Marla Mitchell-Cichon (center) hugs Ken Wyniemko (left), the Project’s first exoneree in June 2003, and its latest exoneree Donya Davis (right).

Ken Wyniemko spent nine years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. Five years after he was exonerated through DNA evidence, the actual perpetrator was identified. While incarcerated, Ken’s father died. In Ken’s words, “He shouldn’t have suffered, and neither should have I.”

“There is no way to replace all that Ken has lost,” stated WMU-Cooley Innocence Project Director Marla Mitchell-Cichon. “What worse injustice could there be than to be wrongfully convicted and then receive no support from the state once you prove your innocence. As an innocence project lawyer, my focus is on getting the innocent person out of prison — a process that can take years. But today, my time and attention is focused on what happens after exoneration. In Michigan, an individual who is paroled from prison receives services and other support from the State. Not so with someone who proves his innocence. Innocent individuals in Michigan receive nothing. Someone who is factually innocent in Michigan receives no services or support. I think we can do better.”

On May 7, 2015, Senator Steve Bieda (D-Warren) introduced Senate Bill 291, the Wrongful Imprisonment Compensation Act. Thirty states and the District of Columbia have compensation laws. Michigan’s SB 291 and House Bill 4536, would provide for financial and other support to innocent Michigan exonerees.

Kenneth Wyniemko introduces and acknowledges each of his fellow exonerees before addressing the media. From left: Exonerees Donya Davis (standing), Julie Baumer, and brothers Thomas and Raymond Highers, then Sen. Steve Bieda, Wyniemko and Sen. Rick Jones.

Kenneth Wyniemko introduces and acknowledges each of his fellow exonerees before addressing the media. From left: Exonerees Donya Davis (standing), Julie Baumer, and brothers Thomas and Raymond Highers, then Sen. Steve Bieda, Wyniemko and Sen. Rick Jones.

“With the introduction of this legislation, it is my intent to help these individuals who were wrongfully convicted re-establish their lives,” Bieda said of his bill that would provide compensation for the wrongfully convicted. “When an individual is proven innocent they should find a state that wants to help them, not another legal battle.”

Mitchell-Cichon agreed that it really is not possible to make up for the losses these men and women have endured, but compensation is a good start. “Helping wrongfully convicted individuals reintegrate into society is the right and just thing to do. The most critical time is the first couple of years after being released from prison. The worst injustice is when the state fails to compensate its citizens who served time in prison for a crime they didn’t commit.”

It’s not a matter of choice in her mind. “We must take care of people who have been wrongfully convicted,” stated Mitchell-Cichon. “The need is too great. These individuals have not only lost their freedom for years, but have lost everything. Their lives have been changed forever through no fault of their own. Providing essential services and necessary financial support will give them a fighting chance to find their way back into society.”

Watch the May 7, 2015 news conference in its entirety.

Watch Channel 7 news report

Read MLive news article



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