Call to Duty Law students help sift through cases from Detroit crime lab


 By Paul Janczewski

Legal News
Sloppy and incompetent work that caused the closing of the Detroit Crime Lab – Unforgivable. 
Convictions that may have been based on that faulty evidence – Injustice. 
Enlisting Cooley Law School students to work with officials examining thousands of cases to uncover potential errors – Priceless.
It may sound like an advertisement for a credit card, but if it were, that card would carry an interest rate called life – perhaps in prison. 
It has been widely reported that the Detroit Crime Lab was closed down in 2008 after a Michigan State Police audit revealed errors, originating from that lab, in some evidence used to prosecute murder defendants and other crimes. Those findings showed problems with ballistics and firearm residue, among other errors.
At the time, Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy said the report revealed a “shocking level of incompetence” at the lab, and said the lab met a woeful 42 percent of a required 100 percent in recognized work standards.
Because of those difficulties, some people now imprisoned based on evidence at trial from the Detroit Crime Lab, may have been the victims of wrongful convictions. And conversely, some may have gone uncharged based on the lab’s faulty findings.
One entity looking into those wrongful convictions is the State Appellate Defenders Office (SADO). But with its limited resources and personnel, the task of going back through years and years of those cases is a monumental task.
But once again, like a good neighbor, the Thomas M. Cooley Law School has enlisted students to volunteer their time in combing over those cases and helping SADO determine if a retesting of the evidence used to convict is warranted.
It began when John Nussbaumer, dean of Cooley’s Auburn Hills Campus and a member of the Appellate Defender Commission, learned of the dilemma SADO was facing in reviewing convictions of their clients that may have been tarnished through faulty Detroit Crime Lab work.
“I volunteered our students” to assist SADO, he said. And like any good administrator, Nussbaumer turned over the project to Associate Professor Alan Gershel. 
“And he made me look good,” Nussbaumer said of Gershel’s guidance in finding the students and hooking up with SADO.
Gershel is no stranger to the criminal prosecution arena. Besides teaching a criminal law class at Cooley, Gershel, who joined the staff full time in 2008, served as an Assistant U.S. Attorney in Detroit for nearly 30 years and was most recently Chief of the Eastern District’s Criminal Division.
Besides holding several positions with the U.S. Attorney’s Office through his career, Gershel served as an adjunct professor not only at Cooley, but at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law, where he received his own law degree in 1978.
He has received recognition for his work, making Gershel not only an accomplished attorney, but also well-qualified to oversee a project of this magnitude. And he was well-aware of the problems found at the Detroit Crime Lab, and the ripple effect it created.
“It caused a top-to-bottom review of many cases,” Gershel said. “It was an enormous project.” 
The audit found a 10 percent error rate of ballistics results, as well as a plethora of non-compliance and quality issues. 
“It has since spread to other aspects of the crime lab,” Gershel said.
Many of those cases involved SADO clients, said Jonathan Sacks, deputy director of the Detroit SADO office. He’s been with the office for six years, the past 21/2 as deputy director. Sacks said SADO represents a quarter of indigent Michigan defendants in their appeals of criminal convictions. 
Sacks said after the “scandal” that closed down the lab, his office had to examine thousands of cases where SADO clients were convicted and evidence from the Detroit Crime Lab was used. The office has received a grant to assist in the search. 
“We’ve looked back five years, and there are hundreds of cases” that fall under that leaky umbrella, he said.
“And nobody knows how far back (the lab) was unreliable.”
He said initially, they are only looking back to convictions in the last six years. But they may look further than that, which could involve “thousands of convictions.”
He said the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office is conducting its own review of cases. 
As for SADO, Sacks said, “It’s a long, involved process involving very tedious work. But it is very rewarding.”
Gershel said some Cooley students were approached about volunteering for the project. They receive no school credit, and no monetary benefits, but receive an opportunity to dig into real cases – murders, robberies, rape, and assaults, among others – and get a feel for some of the documents they will be using if they enter the field of criminal law.
Gershel said students started the work last summer, which includes reviewing a prosecutor’s closing statements, court transcripts, police reports and other evidence from trial. If they determine evidence from the Detroit Crime Lab was used to convict someone, the case is presented to SADO for further review.
“They (the students) are basically functioning as lawyers with SADO,” Gershel said. “It demonstrates a real commitment and passion to be sure that justice has been done in these cases.”
Each term, a few students are added to the project, while a few leave, either because of graduation or other commitments. Currently, he said some 30 Cooley students are involved this term, and have put in more than 400 total hours on the project.
“This is important work, and the kind that law school students would benefit from,” Gershel said. “They also understand the significance of this. Cooley and its students are known for having a real community service ethic, and this is just one example of it.”
Two of the Cooley students working on the project are Martine Denis and John Hohmeier.
Denis, 26, now living in Clawson, will graduate from Cooley in May, but was one of the first students involved in aiding SADO. Her journey to this point began years ago and thousands of miles away in Rome, Italy, her birthplace.
She moved to the U.S. six years ago to complete her education in the Washington, D.C. area, where she had some family and friends, graduating with a degree in political science.
But her desire to attend law school started as a bet with a friend in Italy. 
“It was a fun thing,” Denis said of the bet. 
Another reason was she had a great fear of speaking in public. But she overcame that fear quickly because of all the outgoing people she’s come in contact with here. 
“Now, it’s hard to shut me up,” she said.
Cooley gave her a partial scholarship, but also offered her favorable scheduling options, where she could attend classes on nights and weekends and work part-time at a jewelry shop in Detroit.
Denis jumped at the opportunity to work with SADO on cases. Instead of just reading about law theory, now she could “come in contact with real cases,” she said.
“I had never seen a pre-sentence report before, or the sentencing guidelines worksheet. I didn’t even know what those were.”
In some ways, seeing crimes this close was a real wake-up call for her to how things happen in the real world. She said after reading some of the more horrendous crimes, Denis would think “Oh, my God, he did THIS?”
She said learning about cases in law school and now actually seeing how the criminal justice system operates “made it more real.” Denis said her review of several cases helped SADO identify some that may need additional review.
After reading court documents, reports and scientific evidence used in those trials, Denis said she has seen things that are only hinted at in law school. And she said her experiences her can only help her become a better attorney in the future, when she hopes to enter international law. 
“I know what I need to look for,” she said.
Denis doesn’t mind volunteering her time for this, figuring it will pay dividends in the future. 
“The experience we gain is priceless,” she said.
Hohmeier, 28, also began his quest for law in another country. Born in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada, he said he was always arguing with his mother “since I could speak.”
She told him to use those talents in law, saying, “You might as well make a living out of it.”
While obtaining an undergraduate degree in philosophy, and not taking school as seriously as he should have, Hohmeier, who now lives in Auburn Hills, said he buckled down and applied himself towards the end and landed a partial scholarship at Cooley.
He plans on graduating in May 2011, and has been involved in the SADO project for several terms. After joining the school’s Criminal Law Society, a student organization, Hohmeier said working on the cases has been an “invaluable experience for anybody who wants to be an attorney.”
“I want to be in the courtroom, and this made me want to be a litigant more than ever,“ he said.
What surprised Hohmeier about reading these cases is seeing “how little effort some attorneys put in” in defending their SADO clients. In some transcripts he read, Hohmeier was practically screaming at the attorney to object. He was also impressed with some of the briefs filed by those convicted, calling some of their research “bang on.”
The students get together as groups when going over the cases. Denis said that really helps because “you’re able to discuss the evidence with others, and see things in a different perspective.”
But they both said a good four to six hours is needed at a time, because going over the documents looking for possible tainted Detroit Crime Lab evidence is time consuming.
And both are grateful for having the opportunity to gain knowledge on this project they might not receive from law books.
“I’m infinitely grateful to Cooley,” Hohmeier said. “Not only letting me come here, but Cooley gives students an opportunity to prove yourself again, an opportunity that you won’t get at another law school.”
Worthy, who recently spoke at Cooley, praised the work of the school and its students. And Sacks said Cooley students are very eager to help and learn. 
“This job is not one we have the capacity to do ourselves,” he said. “They’ve been a great help and shown a real commitment in bringing energy to this monumental task to make sure justice is served. They have good instincts for what we are looking for.”
Because of their work, Cooley students have identified several cases earmarked for further review. 
“There’s no doubt in my mind that there are some wrongful convictions, and we’re going to find them,” Hohmeier said.


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