Finding innocence

When two Ecorse men wrongfully imprisoned for eight years walked out of custody last week, they embraced their waiting family members and a team of volunteer attorneys from the University of Michigan Innocence Clinic who successfully worked to free them and have their charges dismissed.

Attorneys and law students, that is.

"Don't call me an attorney," says Zoe Levine, who graduated in May and days later made closing arguments at the court hearing that eventually resulted in the men's release. "I haven't passed the bar yet."

Levine was one of the first 12 students to be part of the new Innocence Clinic at the Ann Arbor school, considered the first such law school project in the country to tackle cases without DNA evidence. Using that scientific identification, the New York-based Innocence Project has exonerated 241 prisoners nationally, including three in Michigan. But Levine, the other students and the two faculty members directing them are taking on cases that don't necessarily have the relative luxury of genetic science to determine who really "done it" — or at least who didn't.

Instead they review case histories for procedural errors, present evidence that was missing at trial, uncover new witnesses, debunk jailhouse snitches or eyewitness testimony, identify police or prosecutorial misconduct, including coerced confessions, and appeal bad lawyering. (Which is not to say that those factors can't also be part of the Innocence Project's DNA cases.)

"There's going to be a lot of business for years to come for us because there are a lot of people in prison in Michigan and some of them are innocent," says clinic co-director David Moran. A former appellate attorney and associate dean at Wayne State University Law School, Moran last year joined with U-M associate dean Bridget McCormack, who has a litigation background, and began publicizing the clinic they co-direct. By January, when the first students enrolled in the seminar, they had thousands of inquiries from inmates to consider. Among the roughly 4,000 files the clinic has begun reviewing, they've accepted eight cases.

With the release of Marvin Reed and his nephew Deshawn last week, that's down to six active clients.

The Reeds were the first case the clinic took and its first success. In 2001, the men were convicted by Wayne County Circuit Judge Michael Hathaway in a bench trial of shooting one of Deshawn Reed's classmates, Shannon Gholston, in the back of the neck. The only evidence linking them to the shooting was the testimony of the victim, who is now a paraplegic. Hathaway discounted the Reeds' alibi witnesses, who said the men were home, and eyewitnesses who said another man, Tyrone Allen, had shot at Gholston.

Between the August verdict and November sentencing, new attorneys discovered Allen had been shot and killed by Detroit police between the time of Gholston's shooting and the Reeds' trial. Hathaway refused to delay sentencing until a ballistics report came back on Allen's gun, and he handed down 20-year sentences to the Reeds. When testing on the gun was completed, the Michigan State Police lab showed Allen's gun was the one that shot Gholston.

Meanwhile, Gholston recanted his story, saying he never saw who shot him. Arguing that the Reeds' former attorneys did not properly appeal the gun evidence and that Gholston's recantation was newly discovered evidence not available at trial, they argued this spring for a new trial for the Reeds.

After a series of evidentiary hearings, where Levine and other students researched evidence, questioned witnesses and made part of the closing arguments, Judge Patricia Fresard ordered a new trial for the Reeds.

At a bond hearing on July 31, the Wayne County Prosecutor dropped the charges against the men, and they were released. By this week, their records at the Michigan Department of Corrections were cleared of the 2001 conviction.

Deshawn Reed says he never had any hesitation about working with students on his case. "The Dream Team," he calls them. "I can't thank them enough," he said as he was released.

After a weekend of celebration, the attorneys and law students were back in court Monday morning, this time in Battle Creek, where last month they won a new trial for Lorinda Swain. Convicted in 2002 of criminal sexual conduct involving her adopted son, Swain had filed three previous, unsuccessful appeals of her conviction. The only evidence in her case was her son's story, which he now says he made up after he was caught molesting a toddler. Calhoun County Circuit Judge Conrad Sindt agreed with the Innocence Clinic attorneys that witnesses not called at trial could have adequately corrupted the son's credibility and resulted in a not-guilty verdict. He ordered a new trial and this week set bond conditions for Swain's release, expected Wednesday.

Unlike the Wayne County Prosecutor, who dropped charges against the Reeds when the only trial witnesses recanted, the newly elected Calhoun County Prosecutor Susan Mladenoff has appealed the order for new trial. She did not return a telephone call from Metro Times.

The clinic has at least three other active cases in Wayne County, including that of Karl Vinson, who was convicted of raping a 9-year-old Detroit girl 23 years ago. Tests performed in June on samples of his saliva and semen show he could not have been the attacker, Moran says. The clinic has asked that his conviction be set aside. Discussions with prosecutors continue.

The Innocence attorneys and students are also working for Mark Craighead, convicted of involuntary manslaughter in 2002 in the death of Detroit man. Craighead maintains his innocence, saying he was working the night of the homicide and that a statement police took from him after 14 hours of interrogation was coerced. But his former employer lost records from the evening, and Craighead's polygraph, which Moran says he passed, is not admissible.

Moran expects Craighead to be released on parole later this year, but says the clinic will continue to fight his conviction though no court papers are filed. "We're looking for leads to help clear him," he says.

Another case, which the clinic is close to formally accepting, involves another southeast Michigan man convicted of murder. The students have found adequate evidence, Moran says, that the victim's husband was the perpetrator. He has not been charged.

The Wayne County Prosecutor's Office declines to discuss specific cases the clinic is involved with but says the proverbial door is open to attorneys and students to make their cases for actual innocence.

"We are always more than willing to work with the Michigan Innocence Clinic," says spokeswoman Maria Miller. "Because we sit on opposite sides of the courtroom, we won't always agree, but our overriding interest is to ensure that justice prevails."

Sandra Svoboda is a Metro Times staff writer. Contact her at 313-202-8015 or [email protected]