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.

Curing the Ills of the Criminal Justice System: What Can We Do to Support Wrongfully Convicted Men and Women?

“On March 13, 2016 Darryl Hunt died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Hunt was suffering from Stage 4 cancer. But cancer was just one of many struggles that Hunt faced in his life. In 1984, he was wrongfully convicted of the rape and murder of a Winston-Salem copy editor. Hunt always maintained his innocence and was exonerated in 2004 after DNA testing excluded him from the rape kit and another man, William E. Brown, confessed to the crime. Hunt spent almost 20 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.” – Marla Mitchell-Cichon, WMU-Cooley Innocence Project Director 

Take a minute to consider all you might lose over a 20-year time span. 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 those who have been wrongfully convicted face.

Speakers Valerie Newman, Senator Steve Bieda, Dr. Zieva Dauber Konvisser, Kenneth Wyniemko, and Laura Caldwell (on screen)

Speakers Valerie Newman, Senator Steve Bieda, Dr. Zieva Dauber Konvisser, Kenneth Wyniemko, and Laura Caldwell (on screen)

On March 18, the WMU-Cooley Journal of Practical and Legal Scholarship teamed up with the school’s Innocence Project to present its symposium, “Is a Wrongful Conviction a Life Sentence?” A panel of distinguished experts presented both the problems and the challenges to life after exoneration.

As Laura Caldwell, director of Life After Innocence, pointed out, “As we were talking to various people we realized there’s so much need – it’s such a surreal journey and such a battle to get yourself out, but then you come back into a world where you don’t know how to do anything…” Being imprisoned for years means you don’t have a valid driver’s license, you don’t know how to use the latest technology. The average sentence served on a wrongful conviction is more than 14 years, but some have spent over 30 years in prison for crimes they didn’t commit.

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State Sen. Steve Bieda and WMU-Cooley Innocence Project client Kenneth Wyniemko have been working tirelessly to pass legislation that will compensate Michigan citizens who are wrongfully imprisoned. Senate Bill 291 would provide $50,000 for each year of wrongful imprisonment and needed services that parolees already receive from the state. But, as we learned from the panelists, no amount of money can compensate the loss experienced by men and women wrongfully convicted in our criminal justice system. “I realize and I’ve always realized that no amount of compensation can truly cover what they’ve been through,” said Bieda. Panelist Dr. Zieva Konvisser, who has focused her research on women exonerees, read heart-wrenching accounts of women who explain how you never really get your life back.

Darryl Hunt is one more tragic story where a man never really did get his life back. Darryl Hunt was the founder of The Darryl Hunt Project for Freedom and Justice and The Darryl Hunt Freedom Fights. The documentary, The Trials of Darryl Hunt chronicles the story of his wrongful conviction.

Professor Marla Mitchell-Cichon

Professor Marla Mitchell-Cichon

Blog 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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Sun has finally set on limiting post-conviction DNA testing in Michigan

Professor Marla Mitchell-Cichon

Professor Marla Mitchell-Cichon

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.

Sen. Steve Bieda (blue tie) joins all the WMU-Cooley Innocence Project team on the Capitol steps after a May 7, 2015 press conference introducing Senate Bill 291.

Sen. Steve Bieda (blue tie) joins all the WMU-Cooley Innocence Project team on the Capitol steps after a May 7, 2015 press conference introducing Senate Bill 291.

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.

WMU-Cooley Innocence Project exoneree Kenneth Wyniemko sharing his story with the press.

WMU-Cooley Innocence Project exoneree Kenneth Wyniemko sharing his story with the press.

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.

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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.

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WMU-Cooley Innocence Project Client Kenneth Wyniemko: Celebrating 12 Years of Freedom

WMU-Cooley Innocence Project client Kenneth Wyniemko with Marla Mitchell-Cichon, director of WMU-Cooley’s Innocence Project.

WMU-Cooley Innocence Project client Kenneth Wyniemko with Marla Mitchell-Cichon, director of the Project.

In 1970, Kenneth Wyniemko wore number 12 as a Detroit Junior Red Wing hockey player. Today, the WMU-Cooley Innocence Project and Kenneth Wyniemko are celebrating the 12th year of Ken’s freedom. Wyniemko was exonerated after DNA testing proved he was innocent.

Wyniemko spent nine years in prison for criminal sexual conduct, breaking and entering and armed robbery-crimes he didn’t commit. Through the efforts of the WMU-Cooley Innocence Project and panel attorney Gail Pamukov, Mr. Wyniemko was released from prison on June 17, 2003.

Mr. Wyniemko did not fit the victim’s description of the perpetrator and there was no physical evidence linking him to the crime. Both the police and prosecutor contributed to the wrongful conviction by eliciting a false statement from a jail inmate. Five years after his exoneration, the true perpetrator, Craig Gonser, was identified through the Combined Offender Database System (CODIS). Tragically, Gonser could not be prosecuted because the statute of limitations had run. Since then, the time limitation has been amended to prevent this injustice (MCL 767(3)(b). But another injustice continues as Michigan remains one of 20 states that do not provide compensation for those who have been wrongfully convicted.

"12" on Ken Wyniemko's birthday cake to commemorate 12 years of freedom, Mr. Wyniemko was exonerated on June 17, 2003. Wyniemko's birthday is June 15.

“12” on Ken Wyniemko’s birthday cake to commemorate 12 years of freedom, Mr. Wyniemko was exonerated on June 17, 2003. Wyniemko’s birthday is June 15.

This week Wyniemko spent his birthday, June 15, preparing to testify before the House Criminal Justice Committee in support of a compensation law that would provide $60,000 a year to Michigan’s wrongfully convicted. But it wasn’t all work and no play. WMU-Cooley Innocence Project staff and students celebrated Ken’s birthday with dinner, balloons and cake. It was a casual, fun event, but the gravity of the needed reforms was not lost in the celebration. Ken encouraged Cooley students, “I’m so glad to see young people pick up the torch for the next generation. We all want a system that works.”

On June 16, Ken and fellow exoneree, Julie Baumer, testified on behalf of Michigan exonerees in support of proposed House Bill 4536. “The most important thing is for people to get justice that’s long overdue,” Wyniemko said. According to the National Registry of Exonerations there have been 55 exonerations in Michigan since 1989. These individuals receive no support or services from the state once they are released. The proposed law would be a step in the right direction.

Mr. Wyniemko’s case illustrates glaring shortcomings in our criminal justice system—the inherit problems with eyewitness identification, jailhouse snitches, wrongful confessions, inadequate legal representation, police and prosecutorial misconduct—all present in his case. And that is why he is a tireless advocate to change the system.

(Kenneth Wyniemko’s case will be chronicled in his forthcoming book, Deliberate Injustice.)

Professor Marla Mitchell-Cichon

Professor Marla Mitchell-Cichon

The 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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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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WMU-Cooley’s Innocence Project Gains Freedom for Yet Another Wrongfully Convicted Man

Donya Davis and Professor Marla Mitchell-Cichon

Donya Davis and Professor Marla Mitchell-Cichon

WMU-Cooley’s Innocence Project seeks to exonerate people who have been wrongfully convicted of serious crimes.  The exoneration of Donya Davis announced today is the project’s third exoneration. 

Congratulations to Professor Marla Mitchell-Cichon and her WMU-Cooley Innocence Project team of students and alumni on their great efforts to obtain freedom for Donya Davis, a young man who was convicted in Wayne County, Michigan Circuit Court and imprisoned for seven years for a crime he did not commit.

Not only did the team use DNA evidence to obtain an order setting aside the conviction earlier this year, they more recently convinced the prosecutor to dismiss the charges altogether.  The case is over.  Donya Davis is now free.

This exoneration, the third for the WMU-Cooley Innocence Project team, demonstrates how legal expertise and hard work can combine to provide liberty and justice for the oppressed, all while giving our students the clinical experience of a lifetime. The WMU-Cooley community is proud of Professor Mitchell-Cichon and her Innocent Project students and alumni for their outstanding efforts to free this innocent man.

You can read the full story here.
See the Law School’s website generally at wmich.edu/law.

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