Man exonerated after 27 years in prison

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WMU-Cooley Innocence Project Director Marla Mitchell-Cichon and Founding Director Norman Fell have been righting the wrongs of injustice since the Project’s inception in 2001. The two are shown on the steps of the Wayne County Courthouse after their client, LeDura Watkins, was exonerated and released in June 2017 after spending nearly 42 years in prison for a crime he did not commit.
 

WMU-Cooley Innocence Project facilitated DNA testing of evidence

On Thursday, Feb. 21, Assistant Prosecutor Valerie Newman, director of the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office Conviction Integrity Unit, motioned to have the convictions of Ramon Ward dismissed and vacated. Ward, 45, was convicted of the murders when he was 18 years old, and served 27 years in prison. The Western Michigan University Cooley Law School Innocence Project helped facilitate the evaluation of the remaining physical evidence in the case.

The original police investigation in the Ward case identified no eyewitnesses. There was no physical evidence that linked Ward to the murders. As a result of the investigation by the Wayne County Conviction Integrity Unit, other evidence showed conclusively that Ward did not commit the crimes. Newman was joined in the motion by Ward’s attorney John Smietanka. The motion was granted by Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Donald L. Knapp.

In 2018, the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office and the WMU-Cooley Innocence Project received a $451,238 Bloodsworth grant from the Department of Justice. The purpose of the grant was to screen claims of innocence and conduct DNA testing of material evidence in appropriate cases.

“WMU-Cooley’s Innocence Project has almost 20 years-experience in post-conviction DNA testing,” said Project Director Marla Mitchell-Cichon. “The grant funding, which covers the cost of testing, allows us to be a resource to innocent prisoners and their lawyers.”

The WMU-Cooley Innocence Project will soon begin a similar partnership with the Michigan Attorney General Office, Conviction Integrity Unit, assisting its office with the evaluation of innocence claims.

Established in 2001, the WMU-Cooley Innocence Project focuses on obtaining post-conviction DNA testing of material evidence, and provides legal assistance to persons who are imprisoned for crimes they did not commit.

The WMU-Cooley Innocence Project is the only post-conviction DNA innocence organization in the state. Since its inception, the office has screened over 5,700 cases and is responsible for the exoneration of four men: Kenneth Wyniemko (2003), Nathaniel Hatchett (2008), and Wayne County residents Donya Davis (2014) and LeDura Watkins (2017).


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