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