Grant given to project focused on innocence claims

The Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office and the WMU-Cooley Law School Innocence Project recently announced that the Department of Justice has awarded a $451,238 grant to collaborate on a case review and a DNA testing project.

The collaboration is the first of its kind in the state.

Funding from the Justice Department grant will defray costs associated with case review, evidence location and DNA testing where the results may show innocence of those convicted of felonies.

“The Department of Justice funds will allow our office to continue to provide high-quality legal services to prisoners whose innocence may be proven through DNA testing,” said WMU-Cooley Innocence Project Director Marla Mitchell-Cichon.

“We look forward to collaborating with a prosecutor’s office that is committed to rectifying wrongful convictions and improving the criminal justice system,” she said.

Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy said a goal of the initiative is “to restore faith in the criminal justice system.“

“This grant will allow us to continue to try new and innovative programs to ensure that justice is done,” she said. 

Valerie Newman, head of the Conviction Integrity Unit, said the work of her unit will be enhanced by this grant.

“I look forward to working with Cooley’s innocence project,” she said, “continuing the work of improving the criminal justice system and investigating innocence claims.”

The grant also supports additional personnel for both offices.

The WCPO Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU) and the WMU-Cooley Law School Innocence Project will work jointly to screen cases to determine whether DNA testing might produce new evidence determinative of guilt. Those involved in the project note that forensic science has undergone substantial changes over the years and offers the ability to both exonerate and convict.

The grant will allow the two entities to work together to ensure that justice has been served through the testing or retesting of forensic evidence that was integral to a conviction, officials involved in the project said.

The initiative will also provide training to grant personnel to help keep them abreast of the changes in forensic science.

The Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office Conviction Integrity Unit became operational last January and has received more than 500 requests for investigation.
Of the 500 referrals, 250 involve forensic evidence. The WMU-Cooley Innocence Project currently has 135 Wayne County cases under review.   

The goal of this project, officials said, is to review and work to conclusion 300 cases involving claims of innocence in violent felony cases.

Having access to prosecution records will greatly aid the traditional process, which requires attorneys to file motions to access evidence and obtain testing.

Additionally, there will be no need to involve the courts with respect to the testing of evidence, since the parties will jointly decide whether testing may bear upon the reliability of the verdict.

This project will stand as a model for future conviction integrity units, according to those involved with the effort, and allow for a speedier, just resolution to claims of innocence where forensic science can often provide a definitive answer.