WMU-Cooley holds Law Symposium in Lansing

WMU-Cooley Law School’s Journal of Practical and Clinical Law, and the WMU-Cooley Innocence Project recently hosted the law school’s 2016 Law Symposium at the Cooley Center in Lansing. During the symposium, panelists discussed wrongful convictions, life for an individual after exoneration, and the needs of the wrongfully convicted after being released from prison.

Panelists included Kenneth Wyniemko, WMU-Cooley Innocence Project exoneree and criminal justice reform advocate; Valerie Newman, State Appellate Defender’s Office assistant defender; Laura Caldwell (via video), Loyola-Chicago University Law School’s Life After Innocence Project director; Zieva Konvisser, Wayne State University adjunct professor; and Steve Bieda, state senator. Professor Marla Mitchell-Cichon, director of WMU-Cooley’s Innocence Project, moderated the discussion.

Bieda, who has introduced Senate Bill 291, to offer compensation to the Michigan’s wrongfully convicted,  spoke about the 30 states in the U.S. that offer some kind of compensation to individuals who have been exonerated. He acknowledged that in Michigan, the difficulty for the state legislature approving compensation to those wrongfully convicted is cost. Bieda said that if funding was legally available for Michigan’s 60 exonerees, who were released from prison between 1989 and 2015, the cost to taxpayers would be nearly $16 million.

Konvisser, Wyniemko, Newman, and Caldwell spoke about how crucial the bill is to assist exonerees with their mental and physical well-being. Exonerees struggle to re-connect with family, to find jobs and insurance, which takes a toll on mental health. Wyniemko discussed his personal experience of knowing exonerees who could not adjust to life after prison and ended their life because of the lack of assistance.

“The symposium brought together qualified experts to talk about the daily challenges of the wrongfully convicted,” said Mitchell-Cichon. “It is critical that Senate Bill 291 pass and that we begin to develop programs in our state to address the physical and psychological needs of Michigan citizens who went to prison for crimes they didn’t commit.”

The WMU-Cooley Innocence Project works to secure the release of factually innocent Michigan prisoners through post-conviction DNA testing. WMU-Cooley established the program in the wake of a 2001 Michigan law permitting post-conviction DNA analysis of biological evidence when that evidence is material to the identity of the perpetrator.

Following the symposium, Bieda and Norman Fell, founding executive director of the Innocence Project, were honored for their contributions to the project’s work.