Blog author, Marla Mitchell-Cichon, is the director of WMU-Cooley Law School’s Innocence Project as well as the co-director of the Access to Justice Clinic for Western Michigan University Cooley Law School. Professor Mitchell-Cichon has extensive practice experience in criminal and poverty law. Her 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.
The sun has finally set on limiting post-conviction DNA testing in Michigan. On December 17, Governor Rick Snyder signed SB151 which eliminates the sunset provision of MCL 770.16. There is no longer a time bar on filing post-conviction petitions for DNA testing.
Michigan passed its first post-conviction DNA testing law in 2001. Shortly thereafter, Professor Emeritus Norman Fell founded the Cooley Innocence Project. The 2001 law was set to expire on January 1, 2006. In 2005, the law was extended to 2011 and then extended again, with a sunset of January 1, 2016. This year, Senator Steven Bieda proposed making the law permanent.
One of the key reasons the law must be permanent is the continuing advancements in DNA technology. Today’s DNA technology can yield results that the technology in 2001, 2006, and 2011 could not. DNA testing is a powerful scientific tool that can link someone to a crime scene. Post-conviction DNA testing not only can prove factual innocence, it can identify the actual perpetrator. That is exactly what happened in Kenneth Wyniemko’s case. In 2003, the Cooley project proved Mr. Wyniemko’s innocence through post-conviction DNA testing. Five years later, the actual perpetrator was identified.
It’s no coincidence that Senator Bieda was Wyniemko’s state representative at the time. Both Bieda, now a state senator, and Wyniemko have been tireless advocates to make Michigan’s post-conviction testing law permanent. Over the years, WMU-Cooley faculty and students have educated legislators and testified before House and Senate committees. All their hard work paid off when lawmakers passed SB 151 in early December.
Since 2001, the WMU-Cooley Innocence Project has screened over 5,000 cases. In October, the Department of Justice awarded the WMU-Cooley project a $418,000 grant to support our work. Making MCL 770.16 permanent could not have come at a better time.
Each term, students from WMU-Cooley and Western Michigan University team up for a WMU-Cooley Innocence Project Orientation Day. The project accepts 6-10 especially qualified students to work with faculty experienced in criminal and post-conviction law to review and evaluate post-conviction cases for strong evidence of factual innocence and prepare appropriate cases for court action. Cooley Law School students, under faculty supervision, work directly on the project and are intricately involved in various operations of the project; such as creating screening procedures, obtaining and reviewing case histories, applying screening devices, investigating facts, interviewing involved persons, writing case time lines and summaries, performing case analyses, preparing written case evaluations and pleadings. To date, the WMU-Cooley Innocence Project has exonerated three individuals: Kenneth Wyniemko, Nathaniel Hatchett, and Donya Davis.
The WMU-Cooley Innocence Project is the only DNA-based innocence project in Michigan. The Project screens Michigan cases for strong claims of factual innocence. Law students and Western Michigan University undergraduates manage their own caseloads under Professor Marla Mitchell-Cichon’s supervision, along with the support of two new staff attorneys, Ayda Rezaian-Nojani and Eric Schroeder. Former staff attorneys Bill Fleener and Cassandra Babel have supported the Project’s casework as well as our legislative efforts. Professors Norman Fell, Kathy Swedlow and Donna McKneelen made significant contributions to the Project and educated legislators over the years. Countless WMU-Cooley students have screened and developed cases, providing high quality legal representation to our clients.