"Teaching Fellow" shares experience with students at U-M Clinic
By Sheila Pursglove
When David Gavitt walked out of prison in 2012 after 27 years of wrongful incarceration, it was a transforming moment for Caitlin Plummer — then a clinical instructor at the Wisconsin Innocence Project — who was privileged to watch his release.
Gavitt was convicted of arson and murder after a house fire killed his wife and two young children. He had managed to escape the house, but despite heroic efforts, was unable to save his family.
“The prosecution put forth now-debunked scientific testimony that the fire had to be arson,” says Plummer, now a teaching fellow in the University of Michigan Innocence Clinic in Ann Arbor. “We proved all of that testimony was wrong, and that in fact the evidence was entirely consistent with an accidental fire. The prosecutor, after having his own experts reevaluate the case, agreed the conviction should be vacated.”
In 17 months with the Wisconsin Innocence Project (WIP) at the University of Wisconsin Law School, Plummer worked on both DNA and non-DNA cases.
“That’s where I first began to learn about and understand forensic DNA testing,” she says. “I worked a variety of interesting DNA cases and was exposed to a lot of complex issues. I really valued gaining that experience.”
Plummer is back on familiar turf in Ann Arbor. After earning her undergrad degree, magna cum laude, from Boston University, she earned her J.D., magna cum laude, from U-M, where she was a recipient of the Ralph M. Freeman Scholarship and Rockwell T. Gust Advocacy Award. She was attracted to the legal field by what she saw as the logic and structure inherent in law.
“It wasn’t until well after I started law school that I discovered it’s often much messier than I thought.”
In her second year, she enrolled as a student in the Michigan Innocence Clinic.
“Even then I never imagined I would become a criminal lawyer — but rather thought of the clinic as an opportunity to do some good and work in a field I would probably never practice in,” she says.
Once she started working on cases and meeting clients, her view slowly started to shift and she began to consider criminal law as a career, and in particular innocence work.
“By the time I graduated, I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.”
Her experience as a student attorney in the Innocence Clinic was invaluable, she notes.
“Truly, it shaped my entire future. Spending two years working under the guidance of brilliant and passionate lawyers — with their experience as a safety net — was the best experience I could have had in law school.”
Now a member of faculty, Plummer says she has “the best job in the world,” doing work she loves and working with law students.
“The work is challenging and sometimes frustrating, but always fulfilling and meaningful,” she says. “My favorite part of working with students is their passion and pure sense of justice. They haven’t been at all hardened by the often-difficult realities of practice. Instead, they approach their cases with entirely open minds and a clear sense of right and wrong. Their passion and drive is always infectious.”
Students in the Clinic — the nation’s first exclusively non-DNA innocence clinic — learn a whole range of practical skills that are useful regardless of what field they go into, she notes. Since the Clinic very rarely uses investigators, students learn a lot about fact investigation.
“Our students take the lead on re-investigating the cases and often turn up really valuable new evidence,” Plummer says. “They learn a lot about interviewing witnesses and clients. More broadly, they learn about skepticism. We hope they learn things are often not as they seem, and that second-guessing a lab report, a witness, or any piece of evidence, is an important part of being a lawyer and an effective advocate.”
DNA is an extremely powerful tool in uncovering wrongful convictions, Plummer notes.
“There have been well over 300 DNA exonerations in the United States, that have not only given the wrongly convicted a new chance at life, but have had a huge impact on the criminal justice system at large,” she explains. “Studying these cases allows us to better understand why wrongful convictions happen. Those lessons are invaluable in preventing wrongful convictions altogether.”
DNA cases teach attorneys what red flags to look for when seeking out wrongful convictions.
“That is hugely important for a clinic like ours that focused on non-DNA cases,” she says. “The lessons learned from the DNA cases — such as more fully understanding the problem of eyewitness identification, or the alarming frequency of false confession — help us understand what to look for, even in the cases where there is no physical evidence to test for DNA.”
According to Plummer, the theme of “junk science” runs across many of the Clinic’s cases, including several arson cases similar to that of David Gavitt in Wisconsin. The Clinic also frequently encounters cases involving allegations of “shaken baby syndrome” — a common diagnosis that has resulted in many convictions.
“Recent scientific advancements have revealed deep flaws in that diagnosis, and shown many diseases or accidental injuries can be easily misdiagnosed as abuse,” she says. “These ‘junk science’ cases are particularly challenging because they require us to learn and understand complex sciences.”
Plummer was co-author of the article, “’Shifted Science’ and Post-Conviction Relief,” published in the fall of 2012 by the Stanford Journal of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, about wrongful convictions based on scientific evidence that is later repudiated. She also has presented on a variety of topics, including wrongful arson convictions and the use of DNA testing in the post-conviction context. Last April she presented “Litigating Shifts in Arson Science,” at the Innocence Network Conference in Charlotte, N.C.
A native of San Diego — a place she has missed dearly in the current arctic blast — Plummer now makes her home in Ann Arbor.
“I love living here and particularly enjoy spending time at Nichols Arboretum and at Matthaei Botanical Gardens.”