Panel explores elements of integrity that constitute the criminal system



Photo 1: Panelists at the WMU-Cooley panel on the Integrity of the Criminal Justice System included, left to right: Becket J. Jones, an associate at Hills at Law in Kalamazoo; Donya Davis, an exoneree helped by the WMU-Cooley Innocence Project; Jerry Faber of the Kent County Prosecutor’s Office; and, standing, ret. Kalamazoo County Circuit Court Judge William G. Schma.

Photo 2: WMU-Cooley Associate Dean Tonya Krause-Phelan moderated the panel.

by Cynthia Price
Legal News

While it was clear going in that the participants in last week’s “Integrity of the Criminal Justice System” discussion came from a variety of different places, the thoughtful panelists had some surprisingly nuanced perspectives.

Perhaps most remarkable, as noted by most people who come into contact with him, is that exoneree Donya Davis shows so little rancor towards the system that incarcerated him without justification.

In a robbery and rape case where the victim misidentified her attacker (even though his description was at odds with what she initially recalled), Davis was tried twice: when the first trial ended in a hung jury, Wayne County retried his case in front of a judge.

Shockingly, there was a semen sample but no one tested it to see if it contained Davis’s DNA. No one, that is, until the WMU-Cooley Law School Innocence Project took the case on.

Even though he served seven of the 67 years to which the judge sentenced him, Davis bears witness to the injustice done him partly because he is not overcome by anger.

“There was a lot of wrongdoing in Wayne County. Once you’re in that court you’re going to be convicted,” he said. “Wayne County works on convictions, whether it’s wrong or right.”

Many of the approximately 40 people in the audience, mostly students, expressed their own outrage at such an unjust situation, some calling for greater accountability when a prosecutor or law enforcement official neglects or abuses his or her responsibilities.

The panel was a joint presentation by Western Michigan University’s Center for the Study of Ethics in Society, which puts on a series of lectures or panels on important topics, and WMU-Thomas M. Cooley Law School.

Tonya Krause-Phelan, professor and Associate Dean at the Grand Rapids campus of WMU-Cooley, moderated, and — as a former practicing defense attorney — commented where appropriate.

She observed that there are five sets players in the criminal justice system. First the person who is suspected of committing a crime; second, law enforcement; third, prosecutors; fourth, defense attorneys; and last, the judge, whether or not there is a jury.

“So, in terms of integrity, first of all, how do these five roles interact with each other? Sometimes there’s a lot of animosity; that used to surprise me when I?was practicing. All of us swore to uphold the law, so why can’t we get along within the system?

“The second intersection is how these players in the criminal justice system treat the other people who are brought into the system: the victim, the families of both the victim and the defendant, all of them?”

Two panelists represented the third and fourth segments which oppose each other: Becket J. Jones from Hills at Law in Kalamazoo, who works on the defense side, and Jerry Faber, a prosecutor in Kent County. (Lt. David Schnurstein of the Grand Rapids Police Department, representing the fifth group, was scheduled but unable to attend.)

Jones and Faber are excellent examples of integrity in criminal counsel, though Jones admitted he has to battle the tendency to be overzealous and focusing on winning no matter what it takes— something everyone agreed was one of the culprits in compromising criminal justice system integrity.

“The adversarial process can overtake people at some points. It can become very much about winning or losing. I’ve been there; you can get caught up in the moment, caught up in those kinds of emotions,” Jones said, noting that in his fairly brief career he continues to learn more and more how to avoid that obsession.

“I think the most horrifying thing I can imagine is prosecuting someone like Mr. Davis successfully,” said Faber. “I think about that every single day, and it chills me to the bone. I take my responsibility very seriously.”

Jones acknowledged that most but not all prosecutors feel that way. “I admire prosecutors like Mr. Faber, but I have  seen it on the flip side where it very much is about conviction rates,” Jones said.

For his part, the Hon. William G. Schma, a retired Kalamazoo County Circuit Court Judge, felt that integrity is enhanced by the change in attitude that problem solving courts represent.

Judge Schma, who was instrumental in creating Kalamazoo County’s drug court in 1992, one of the first in the country, gave a brief history of the movement to drug courts, noting that Miami-Dade County had the first under Judge Stanley Goldstein, in response to the epidemic of drug-addicted offenders coming into the system.

“Judge Goldstein said this is not making sense, adjudicating all these cases with addicted drug users and locking them up. He started to direct these people out of the criminal justice system into treatment because to him it was ‘fair’ and that’s certainly an element of integrity. It was the right thing to do,” Judge Schma said.

He added, “That system is not without its tensions, and there are always tensions in the implementation of due process. It’s subject to abuse, it’s subject to careless human judgment and reckless behavior, but the evidence shows a court that treats people with respect and integrity also is very effective.”

Among other solutions proposed were better funding for public defenders — panelists directed a questioner to the Michigan Indigent Defense Commission’s work — and more intense and specific attorney training on techniques such as cross examination.  Jones was particularly adamant that there should be required Continuing Legal Education as there is in other states. And all who spoke on the matter agreed that, as difficult as it might be, holding prosecutors accountable for mistakes made provided the best incentive for prosecuting with integrity.