Suing the 'railroad'

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You may recall the case of Walter Swift, who ended up on the cover of this rag last year ("Swift's justice," Nov. 18, 2009) when we wrote about the 26 years he spent in prison for a crime he did not commit, and the difficult time he was having adjusting to the outside world following his release in 2008.

Convicted in 1982 of raping a pregnant Detroit teacher, Swift won his freedom as a result of work done by the Innocence Project, which uses DNA evidence to help assist prisoners who may have been wrongly convicted.

"For 26 long years, Walter Swift has held onto hope that the truth would finally come out and he would be exonerated. Today, his unimaginable nightmare is ending but he is just beginning the long road to rebuild his life," Barry Scheck, co-director of the Innocence Project, said at the time of Swift's release. "He was convicted based on a deeply flawed and completely unreliable eyewitness identification. Even at the time of his trial in 1982, there was convincing evidence that he was innocent, but his court-appointed attorney failed to present that evidence."

Last week, attorneys Bill Goodman and Julie Hurwitz filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of Swift in U.S. District Court in Detroit. Named as defendants in the suit — which seeks unspecified monetary damages — were the city of Detroit, Wayne County and several police officers involved in the case. 

The lawsuit alleges that Swift's constitutional rights were violated because he did not receive a fair trial. Hurwitz, in a phone interview with News Hits, summed up the case in more direct terms: "Walter Swift was railroaded."

One aspect of the suit is the claim that Swift failed to receive adequate representation from the publicly paid defender assigned to his case. The suit lays the blame for that with the county, which, it is alleged, "maintained an official policy and custom of failing to adequately fund its woefully inadequate system of indigent representation in serious felony cases."

It is hoped that this case will help draw attention to a situation regarding representation of indigent defendants that, if anything, is even worse now than it was when Swift was wrongly convicted, says Hurwitz.

"It is a crisis of epidemic proportions," she says.

The lawsuit also shines a spotlight on a dangerous attitude held by some police officers. In the case of Swift, it is alleged that, in order to gain a conviction, evidence was withheld and an eyewitness was manipulated. As is admitted in a sworn affidavit from one of the officers, even though the evidence showed that Swift was not responsible for committing the crime he was accused of, the case against him was allowed to proceed because it was assumed by one of the investigators that "Mr. Smith may not have done this crime but ... he did some crime before and had gotten away with [it]."

"Even though this all took place 28 years ago, it is critical to hold law enforcement and public agencies accountable for ensuring that people accused of committing a crime are given a fair shake. What happened with Walter Swift was an absolute failure to do that."

The city, as is its custom when it comes to matters of litigation, declined to comment.

As for Swift, who in 2008 was briefly kidnapped by drug dealers who claimed he owed them $100, the difficulty of adjusting to life outside prison after spending so many years behind bars continues.

"He's struggling mightily to learn how to function in the world,' says Hurwitz. "He's working hard to do that. Certainly he has his challenges — emotionally, psychologically, financially. But he continues to try and cope as best he can. He's an amazing guy."

News Hits is edited by Curt Guyette. Contact him at 313-202-8004 or [email protected]

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