WMU-Cooley Innocence Project to host Law Journal Symposium

Is a wrongful conviction a life sentence? What really happens to an individual after exoneration? What does it mean to be factually innocent?

 WMU-Cooley Innocence Project will host the 2016 Law Journal Symposium where a distinguished panel of speakers will answer these questions. Professor Marla Mitchell-Cichon, director of WMU-Cooley’s Innocence Project, will moderate the March 18 event at the law school’s Cooley Center located at 300 S. Capitol in downtown Lansing, Michigan. Founding executive director Norman Fell and Senator Steve Bieda will be honored for their contributions to the Project’s work.

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.

Since its inception in 2001, the Project has screened over 5,300 cases and exonerated three men based on the results of DNA testing. The WMU-Cooley Innocence Project is member of the Innocence Network, credited with the release of 337 wrongfully convicted individuals. These exonerees served an average of 14 years in prison before release.

Exonerees often face an uphill battle to readjust back into society. “They have no money, no state identification and, in some cases, no family or friends to help them,” Mitchell-Cichon said. “If you get exonerated, you get nothing. I don’t think the public is aware of the challenges the wrongfully convicted face. It’s critical for the state to award compensation to those individuals to assist them with their reintegration into society. “

The purpose of the symposium is to educate the public and explore ways to make those who have been wrongfully convicted whole. “No amount of money will make up for the time lost, but it is good start,” Mitchell-Cichon says.  “As a society, it is in our best interest to help those who have been wrongfully convicted become productive members of society.”  In Michigan, those who are paroled receive state services and support. Exonerees do not. 

Mitchell-Cichon has testified in support of Senate Bill 291, a proposed law that would result in the state paying victims of wrongful conviction $60,000 for every year spent behind bars.  Thirty states and the federal government provide compensation for those who have been wrongfully convicted. “We want the public to understand how having such a law makes sense. It restores faith in our state officials and strengthens our community.”

The WMU-Cooley Law Journal Symposium on March 18 features a distinguished panel of speakers including:

• Kenneth Wyniemko: WMU-Cooley Innocence Project exoneree and criminal justice reform advocate

• Valerie Newman: assistant defender, State Appellate Defender Office

• Prof. Laura Caldwell (via video): director, Life After Innocence Project, Loyola Univ. Chicago Law School

• Dr. Zieva Konvisser: adjunct assistant professor, Department of Criminal Justice, Wayne State University

• State Senator Steve Bieda: Sponsor of Senate Bill 291 (Wrongful Imprisonment Compensation Act)

The Symposium is on March 18, from 10 a.m. to noon, followed by lunch. The luncheon will honor WMU-Cooley Professor Emeritus Norman Fell, founding executive director of the WMU-Cooley Innocence Project, and State Senator Steve Bieda.

For more information or to reserve a seat, email: lawjournal@cooley.edu

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