U of M Innocence Clinic succeeds through methodical investigation


 by Cynthia Price

Legal News
Headlines about prisoners released when DNA evidence helped lawyers overturn their convictions have been hard to miss over the past several years.
The University of Michigan Law School, cognizant of the  great numbers of cases in which DNA testing plays no part, opened the first non-DNA Innocence Clinic in early 2009.
Grand Rapids Bar Association Law Day keynote speaker and Innocence Clinic co-founder David Moran said that, basically, the professors and students involved in the project clear the wrongfully convicted the old-fashioned way.
And the students learn valuable lessons in preparation and investigation along the way.
Moran later said, “We were the first solely non-DNA innocence clinic...  Many of the projects that started off as DNA-only have now branched out and do both DNA and non-DNA.  But I believe we are still the only exclusively non-DNA project.”
When Moran spoke at the Law Day Luncheon April 30, the clinic was fresh off a major victory: the Wayne County prosecutor had decided not to retry Dwane Provience on March 24, the denouement to a fascinating tale of false witness and crossed signals.
Moran focused on that case in his Law Day presentation, remarking that it has broad ramifications on the need for both DNA and non-DNA approaches to exoneration.
A man, Renee Hunter, was shot in broad daylight on a corner in Detroit, and six of seven eyewitnesses were remarkably in agreement: they identified a grey Chevy Caprice as the vehicle driven by the shooter.
A while later, a homeless crack addict told police that he saw Dwane Provience and his brother commit the crime, and despite ongoing investigation that led elsewhere, the police and prosecution built a case resulting in Provience’s conviction.
Provience claimed he did not even know Renee Hunter. The homeless man was in jail at the time, and he was allowed to go free as a result of his cooperation. 
Provience’s conviction would have been much less likely if he had received competent legal assistance, but his lawyer, who has since been disbarred, never even checked easily available police records.
The first challenge the U of M Law students accepted was finding the crack addict whose testimony had been the key point in the prosecution’s case. Knowing more or less only his name, the students found him. He recanted immediately.
But that was insufficient to overturn the conviction. Eventually, the students tracked down enough evidence to determine the likely actual killers: two brothers who ran a large marijuana operation, who have since been killed themselves, although the students believe they hired someone else to do the actual shooting. Police suspected that another murder under investigation was related, but no one put all the pieces together.
Most telling for the students was that the hired killer owned a grey Chevy Caprice at the time, and police were aware of that.
Provience was released in November 2009. He has gotten a job and reunited with his family. Moran said that he wishes he could be like Provience, who, amazingly, never showed anger about what had happened to him.
Before they will take the case, U of M Innocence Clinic managers require people be completely and clearly innocent, as in, they have absolutely nothing to do with the crime. To determine that, the clinic distributes lengthy questionnaires to prisoners — over 4000 of which have been returned.
Of the more than 500 applications deemed reasonable, the clinic has been able to secure freedom for three wrongfully convicted; there is one case on appeal and five others pending.
Moran left a rewarding professorial career at Wayne State University to start the U of M clinic with Bridge McCormack. He was previously with the State Appellate Defender’s Office.
Moran stated that they have been able to identify six factors which are likely to play into any wrongful conviction: eyewitness misidentification, false confessions, bad crime lab science, over-reliance on witnesses who have an incentive to lie, police or prosecutorial misconduct, and — what he finds most significant — ineffective and incompetent defense counsel.