WMU-Cooley Law School Innocence Project garners $418K DOJ grant

The Western Michigan University Cooley Law School Innocence Project, a legal clinic that seeks to exonerate people who have been wrongfully convicted of serious crimes, has received a $418,000 U.S. Department of Justice grant to continue its vital work.

The DOJ grant made to WMU supports an effort that has become emblematic of the synergy that has developed since the two schools formally affiliated in 2014. Students from both schools have been deeply involved in the work of the WMU-Cooley Innocence Project. The grant is one of the largest wrongful conviction grants awarded by the Justice Department so far in 2015.

Since its inception, the WMU-Cooley Innocence Project has screened more than 5,300 cases and exonerated three Michigan men who spent years in prison after being wrongly convicted of such serious crimes as sexual assault.

The project is currently investigating several dozen cases. And it recently received an influx of some 200 additional cases referred by the Innocence Project, an entity affiliated with the Cardozo School of Law in New York that will no longer be handling Michigan cases. Funding from the Justice Department grant will defray the costs associated with case review, evidence location and DNA testing where the results may show innocence of those convicted of felonies. The grant also will fund investigators, experts and the hiring of a full-time staff attorney.

The WMU-Cooley Innocence Project operates as a teaching clinic that trains law school students and WMU undergraduates to screen cases, gather court opinions, review trial records, draft Freedom of Information Act requests and communicate with attorneys, police officers, forensic examiners, private investigators, and witnesses.

"This grant allows our undergraduate students to use their education to engage in their community-and understand their social responsibility-while promoting social justice. I cannot imagine a better way for WMU students from diverse backgrounds and majors to connect their knowledge with experience," says Dr. Ashlyn Kuersten, an associate professor in WMU's Department of Gender and Women's Studies, who is the grant's principal investigator.

Co-principal investigators on the funded work are Dr. Mark Hurwitz, WMU political science professor, and Marla Mitchell-Cichon, director of the WMU-Cooley Innocence Project and a professor at the law school.

"The Department of Justice funds will allow the WMU-Cooley Innocence Project to continue to provide high-quality legal services to Michigan prisoners whose innocence may be proven through DNA testing," Cichon says.

Through innocence project training, students learn about the factors common in wrongful convictions, including police and prosecutorial misconduct, plea bargaining, eyewitness misidentification, false confessions, the use of jailhouse informants, unreliable forensic evidence, and ineffective assistance of counsel.

The Innocence Project began at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University in 1992. Since that time, other innocence organizations have developed with the goal of exonerating wrongfully convicted people through DNA testing and reforming the criminal justice system to prevent future injustice. Since the organization of the first innocence project, 330 people have been exonerated through DNA testing in the United States, including 20 who were at one time sentenced to death.

Published: Mon, Oct 05, 2015

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