Category Archives: WMU-Cooley Innocence Project

The WMU-Cooley Innocence Project is part of the Innocence Network, which has been credited with the release of over 329 wrongfully accused prisoners mainly through the use of DNA testing. In its short life, the WMU-Cooley Innocence Project has exonerated 3 individuals: Kenneth Wyniemko, Nathaniel Hatchett, and Donya Davis.

WMU-Cooley Law School Innocence Project’s Efforts Free Detroit Man After 42 Years of Wrongful Imprisonment

LeDura (Ledora) Watkins was released today after serving almost 42 years for a robbery and murder he did not commit. Based on the WMU-Cooley Innocence Project’s motion for new trial, the Wayne County Prosecutor’s office agreed to vacate the judgment of conviction and dismiss all charges in the 1975 murder of a Detroit woman.

Watkins was sentenced to life without parole on April 15, 1976. The WMU-Cooley Innocence Project filed a motion for new trial on January 19, 2017. The prosecutor’s office agreed that hair comparison evidence used against Watkins does not meet today’s scientific and legal standards. Watkins was sentenced to life without parole on April 15, 1976. The WMU-Cooley Innocence Project filed a motion for new trial on January 19, 2017. The prosecutor’s office agreed that hair comparison evidence used against Watkins does not meet today’s scientific and legal standards.

LeDura Watkins was released after serving 42 years for a murder he did not commit.

LeDura Watkins was released after serving 42 years for a murder he did not commit.

In 2013, the FBI disavowed testimony by FBI-trained analysts, finding they often overstated their conclusions. The Detroit lab analysts, trained by the FBI, tied Watkins to the crime scene based on a single hair.

Innocence Project team members

WMU-Cooley Innocence Project team following the release of LeDura Watkins who served 42 years for a robbery and murder he did not commit.

“Hair comparison is not based on science; it is simply a lab analyst’s subjective opinion and has no place in our criminal justice system,” said Marla Mitchell-Cichon, director of the WMU-Cooley Innocence Project. “This is why a state-wide review of hair comparison cases is critical.”

Mitchell-Cichon commended Prosecutor Kym Worthy and the Wayne County Prosecutor’s office for working with her office to resolve the case. The prosecutor’s office agreed that the new scientific standards are “newly discovered” evidence.

Mitchell-Cichon also noted that over the years, Watkins never stopped fighting for his freedom. He never gave up on the belief that the truth would come out. His family also got their wish; he will attend the annual family reunion in August.

 According to the National Registry of Exonerations, Watkins will be the longest-serving wrongly convicted person in Michigan.

About WMU-Cooley Law School Innocence Project: WMU-Cooley’s project is part of the Innocence Network, which has been credited with the release of over 350 wrongfully accused prisoners through the use of DNA testing. The WMU-Cooley project has screened over 5500 cases since 2001 and is responsible for the exoneration of Kenneth Wyniemko (2003), Nathaniel Hatchett (2008), and Donya Davis (2014). The Project is staffed by WMU-Cooley Law School students and Western Michigan University undergraduates, who work under the supervision of WMU-Cooley Project attorneys. Staff Attorney Eric Schroeder and Legal Intern Wisam Mikho served as lead counsel in this case. Those interested in donating and supporting the work of the WMU-Cooley Innocence Project can email innocence@cooley.edu

About Western Michigan University Cooley Law School: WMU-Cooley Law School resulted from the 2014 affiliation that combined WMU’s status as a nationally-ranked, public, comprehensive research university with the commitment to practical legal education of an independent, non-profit, national law school. WMU-Cooley is accredited by both the American Bar Association and the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools. Since the law school’s founding in 1972, WMU-Cooley has provided nearly 20,000 graduates with the practical skills necessary for a seamless transition from academia to the real world, and enrolls classes in January, May, and September at its Lansing, Auburn Hills, and Grand Rapids, Michigan campuses, and its Tampa Bay, Florida campus. WMU and WMU-Cooley Law School operate as independent institutions with their own governance structure and separate fiduciary responsibilities.

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Law Student from Germany Learns What Real Freedom Means While Helping the Wrongfully Convicted

I’m a 22 years old law student from Germany. As part of an international exchange program, I spent my last term doing a study abroad experience here at WMU-Cooley Law School. Coming to Michigan, and working with the WMU-Cooley Innocence Project, was an experience I will never forget – Anna-Lisa Benkhoff, Muenster University law student and WMU-Cooley Innocence Project intern

When I decided to come to America and attend WMU-Cooley Law School, I had no idea what kind of experiences it would bring. Growing up, I always sought out new opportunities and to challenge myself. I heard about the WMU-Innocence Project when I was looking into study abroad opportunities in the United States. I was excited about the idea that students got to work on actual criminal cases with real people who have been wronged. I especially like that I would learn practical knowledge and skills in the law.

The WMU-Cooley Innocence Project fights against wrongful convictions in post-conviction cases, using DNA-testing to prove innocence.

I spent much of my time in the law clinic working on one case. Our client was convicted of criminal sexual conduct in the first degree, involving two perpetrators. It was the first case I ever worked on and it was an unbelievable experience. I actually was able to meet our client in prison.

Once I got to meet him in person, I knew I was working for the right reasons. It means a lot to be able to help someone who has been wronged get out of prison.

Based on our work, the client was granted an evidentiary hearing on the WMU-Cooley Innocence Project’s motion under MCR 6.500. During the hearing, the judge heard our newly discovered evidence. From that evidence, the judge must decide whether to grant our client a new trial.

In addition to doing research to support the case, I wrote legal memos and assisted in preparing the case for litigation. I feel so proud that I helped to prepare the paperwork needed for our client’s evidentiary hearing. I helped to prepare a witness list and questions for direct and cross examinations.

 During the hearing, WMU-Cooley Innocence Project interns questioned witnessed on the stand – just like a real lawyer.

The evidentiary hearing took four days, and is now submitted to the court for a decision.

Even though I’m leaving the United States and the WMU-Cooley Innocence Project, I will continue to follow its important work. I had a such a great time and got to meet so many nice and very cool people. I now realize the hard work it takes to improve the criminal justice system. I would recommend this experience to anyone. Not only do you gain practical legal skills and experience, you have the privilege of doing something very important – saving someone from life imprisonment when they have been wrongfully convicted. It was unforgettable.

WMU-Cooley Innocence Project Director Marla Mitchell-Cichon and German International Exchange Program law student Anna-Lisa Benkhoff.

WMU-Cooley Innocence Project Director Marla Mitchell-Cichon and German International Exchange Program law student Anna-Lisa Benkhoff.

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Bill Gets Some Love on Valentine’s Day

On Feb. 14, Gov. Rick Snyder will sign two new laws which support Michigan citizens who have been wrongfully convicted. I am honored to be invited to attend the ceremonial signing, scheduled at 3:00 P.M. on Valentine’s Day. Exonerees and supporters from across the state will attend. I look forward to attending the ceremony with WMU-Cooley Innocence Project exonerees Kenneth Wyniemko, Nathaniel Hatchett, and Donya Davis.

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For over a decade, state Senator Steve Bieda sponsored legislation to compensate Michigan citizens, wrongfully convicted at the hands of the state. Senate Bill 291, sponsored by Bieda, provides $50,000 for each year of incarceration to individuals convicted and imprisoned for crimes they did not commit. House Bill 5815, sponsored by state Representative Stephanie Chang, provides for reentry services. The bills, now Public Acts 343 and 344 of 2016, will take effect on March 29, 2017. Michigan joins 31 states, the District of Columbia and the federal government in providing compensation to the wrongfully convicted.

No amount of money can make up for all that is lost from a wrongful conviction. Kenneth Wyniemko lost his father during his wrongful imprisonment and Donya Davis lost time with his children. Nathaniel Hatchett was still in high school when he went to prison for a crime he didn’t commit. Hearts are broken and slow to mend. True criminal justice reform comes from laws, policies and practices that prevent a wrongful conviction from happening in the first place.

Public Acts 343 and 344 will provide Michigan exonerees with needed services and financial compensation for years lost to a system that failed them. On Valentine’s Day, let search our hearts for how we can do more.


marla-mitchell-cichon-editThe author, Marla Mitchell-Cichon, is the director of WMU-Cooley Law School’s Innocence Project.  She was honored in fall 2016 with the State Bar of Michigan’s Champion of Justice Award, Michigan Lawyers Weekly 30 Leaders in the Law, and Ingham County Bar Association’s Leo A. Farhat Outstanding Lawyer Award. She led the efforts for the release of WMU-Cooley Innocence Project’s client Donya Davis. Davis was wrongfully convicted of carjacking, armed robbery and rape in 2007. Davis was exonerated in 2014, and is the third client exonerated by the WMU-Cooley Innocence Project. The Project is currently working on 15 promising cases and screening approximately 200 cases for factual innocence.


The WMU-Cooley Law School Innocence Project will host a reception for exonerees and their supporters at the law school on Feb. 14, 2017 from 1:00-2:00 p.m. Media inquiries should be directed to innocence@cooley.edu or a WMU-Cooley News & Media contact:

Tyler Lecceadone, SeyferthPR, lecceadone@seyferthpr.com
 1-800-435-9539

Terry Carella, Director of Communications, carellat@cooley.edu
517- 371-5140, ext. 2916

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New Year Brighter for Wrongfully Convicted Michigan Citizens

When the state puts an innocent man or woman behind bars, it has the obligation to financially support that person’s reintegration into society. For over a decade, state Senator Steve Bieda has sponsored legislation to compensate Michigan citizens who have been wrongfully convicted at the hands of the state. On December 21, Governor Rick Snyder signed into law the “Wrongful Conviction Compensation Act.”

Michigan State Sen. Steve Bieda and Rep. Stephanie Chang working to help pass legislation to compensate Michigan citizens who are wrongfully imprisoned.

Michigan State Sen. Steve Bieda and Rep. Stephanie Chang working to help pass legislation to compensate Michigan citizens who are wrongfully imprisoned.

Senate Bill 291, sponsored by Bieda, provides $50,000 for each year of incarceration to individuals convicted and imprisoned for crimes they did not commit, House Bill 5815, sponsored by state Representative Stephanie Chang, provides the reentry services to exonerees. The measures are now Public Acts 343 and 344 of 2016.

Exonerees will now be eligible for the same reentry services that Michigan parolees receive.

  • Reentry services consistent with the services received by parolees for up to two years following the date of discharge.
  • Reentry housing consistent with the traditional housing provided to parolees for up to one year following the date of discharge.
  • Assistance in obtaining vital documents, including state identification.

Exonerees previously received no assistance from the state after their wrongful conviction.

Michigan joins 31 other states, the District of Columbia and the federal government in providing compensation to the wrongfully convicted. Receiving compensation will not be automatic. Exonerees must file their claim in the Court of Claims and prove their innocence by clear and convincing evidence.

Public Acts 343 and 344 will help Michigan exonerees reintegrate back into society and improve their quality of life. You can never fully compensate someone for his or her wrongful conviction, but you can do what is just and right. The new law is a step in the right direction, bringing renewed hope for a fair and caring criminal justice system in the new year.

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WMU-Cooley Innocence Project Director Marla Mitchell-Cichon with exoneree Donya Davis.

WMU-Cooley Innocence Project Director Marla Mitchell-Cichon with Donya Davis.

The author, Marla Mitchell-Cichon, is the director of WMU-Cooley Law School’s Innocence Project.  She was honored in fall 2016 with the State Bar of Michigan’s Champion of Justice Award and Ingham County Bar Association’s Leo A. Farhat Outstanding Lawyer Award. She led the efforts for the release of WMU-Cooley Innocence Project’s client Donya Davis. Davis was wrongfully convicted of carjacking, armed robbery and rape in 2007. Davis was exonerated in 2014, and is the third client exonerated by the WMU-Cooley Innocence Project. The Project is currently working on 15 promising cases and screening approximately 200 cases for factual innocence.

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House Criminal Justice Committee Unanimously Supports Bills for the Wrongfully Convicted: Will Michigan be the 31st state to right the wrong?

Take a minute to consider all that you might lose during the years of a wrongful incarceration. Then consider how you would begin to put your life back together. Where would you live? How would you support yourself? How would you explain where you have been when you apply for a job? How would your medical and psychological needs be met? These are just a few of the challenges that Michigan citizens who have been wrongfully convicted face on a daily basis. – Director of WMU-Cooley Law School’s Innocence Project Marla Mitchell Cichon

My client, Donya Davis, is a case in point. Mr. Davis was wrongfully convicted in 1997. Mr. Davis was convicted of criminal sexual assault. At trial, Mr. Davis presented an alibi defense. And there was DNA evidence excluding Mr. Davis from the rape kit. Nevertheless, Mr. Davis was convicted after a bench trial. The WMU-Cooley Innocence Project obtained additional DNA testing in 2013 and Mr. Davis was excluded on all the tested samples and the new evidence pointed to another male contributor. In light of the post-conviction DNA results, the State agreed to the Project’s motion for new trial and all charges against Mr. Davis were dismissed in November 2014.

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In prison, Mr. Davis took advantage of all the education and training he could, including earning a paralegal certificate and attending culinary school. Fortunately, Mr. Davis has strong family support and he has worked hard to get back on his feet since his exoneration. Nevertheless, life continues to be a challenge. This week the House Criminal Justice Committee considered Senate Bill 291. The proposed law would provide compensation for wrongfully convicted Michigan citizens. If passed, Michigan would become the 31st state, along with the District of Columbia and the federal government, to provide compensation to wrongfully convicted individuals.

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The Committee also considered  House Bill 5815 which provides exonerees with the access to housing and other services. Both bills were supported unanimously by the committee. Both bills would make a difference in Mr. Davis’s life. These two pieces of legislation will give Michigan exonerees the ability to reintegrate back into society and improve their quality of life. Making these bills law is both right and just.


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.

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Quintessential Practical Legal Scholarship: WMU-Cooley Innocence Project Intern Joseph Daly Argues Client’s Case

Blog author, Marla Mitchell-Cichon, is the director of WMU-Cooley 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.

What if you had to argue your first case before you passed the bar examination? Cooley graduate and legal intern Joseph Daly did just that.

Joseph Daly and Professor Marla Mitchell-Cichon at graduation in May 2016

Joseph Daly and Professor Marla Mitchell-Cichon at graduation in May 2016

In March, the WMU-Cooley Innocence Project filed a motion for a new trial on behalf of Octaviano Molina Jr., citing new evidence that casts doubt on Molina’s involvement in a 1998 rape case. Legal intern Joseph Daly wrote the motion under my supervision. He spent countless hours researching, drafting and fine-tuning his arguments.

In May, Joseph graduated from WMU-Cooley, but stayed on with the WMU-Cooley Innocence Project as a volunteer. His hard work paid off — the case was set for oral argument on the motion on June 27. In his first court appearance, Joseph argued the motion before Genesee County Circuit Court Judge Joseph J. Farah.

The Cooley Innocence Project Team

The WMU-Cooley Innocence Project team

Our office put Joseph through several practice arguments. I assured him that he was prepared for any question posed by the judge. Except for the one he was asked right out of the box. Judge Farah asked Joseph if he was familiar with the Michigan Supreme Court decision in People v. Swain. I gulped. We didn’t cover that case in our practice arguments. The case itself wasn’t particularly relevant to our case, but I was concerned the question would throw Joseph off. But then I heard Joseph respond that he was familiar with the case and that he had watched the oral arguments. Yes, I recommended to all of the innocence project interns to watch the oral arguments in the case, but students don’t always do the “extra reading.” But Joseph was thinking and acting like a lawyer.

After hearing argument, Judge Farah ordered an evidentiary hearing to consider new evidence, including DNA evidence that identifies a second man never charged with the crime. Joseph had to remind the judge that the hearing would have to be scheduled after the July bar exam.

Joseph promised Mr. Molina that he would follow through with his case to the end.  Joseph has stayed on with the project to do just that. You can’t argue with that.

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Righting Wrongs: Michigan Senate Takes First Step Toward Compensating Wrongfully Convicted Michigan Citizens.

This week Mr. Davontae Sanford was exonerated for a crime he didn’t commit. In 2008, Mr. Sanford was convicted at age 14, after his false confession led to his guilty plea to 2nd degree murder. Only one problem: he didn’t commit the crime.

WMU-Cooley Innocence Project Director Marla Mitchell-Cichon (center) and her team of interns are paving the way to right the wrongs in the criminal justice system. WMU interns: (left to right): Shay Wright, Erika Donner, Ashley Chlebek, Terry Huhn

WMU-Cooley Innocence Project Director Marla Mitchell-Cichon (center) and her team of interns are paving the way to right the wrongs in the criminal justice system. WMU interns: (left to right): Shay Wright, Erika Donner, Ashley Chlebek, Terry Huhn

Shortly after Mr. Sanford’s sentencing hearing, one of the true perpetrators, Vince Smothers told police he committed the crime. But Mr. Sanford’s conviction was not overturned until he was 23, nine years after his conviction. In a press conference on Thursday, Mr. Sanford said, “It’s over. I’m out. That’s all I wanted was my freedom.” But doesn’t this man who went to prison as a child deserve more?

That’s the focus of Senate Bill 291, a law that provides compensation ($50,000 for each year of imprisonment) to wrongfully convicted Michigan citizens. For as many years as Mr. Sanford has been incarcerated, Senator Steve Bieda, the bill’s sponsor, has worked tirelessly for a fair and just compensation law. While Mr. Sanford was enjoying his first full day of freedom, the Michigan Senate unanimously passed Senate Bill 291, the Wrongful Imprisonment Compensation Act.

Thirty states, the District of Columbia and the federal government have similar laws. Michigan’s law will provide much needed financial support and services to men and women who never should have spent a day in prison. The Senate vote means the bill will move on to the House of Representatives.

Dear House Members: Mr. Sanford deserves more.


Related bills:

No tax on compensation, SB 860, introduced by Senator David Roberson.

Wrap Around Services Bill, SB 1028, introduced today by Senator Steve Bieda.


mitchellcichon_marlaBlog author, Marla Mitchell-Cichon, is the director of WMU-Cooley Law School’s Innocence Project.  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. She joined WMU-Cooley Law School in July 1995 and also teaches in the Sixty Plus, Inc., Elderlaw Clinic and Professional Responsibility.

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