Federal grants bolster review of innocence claims

The Michigan Department of Attorney General and Western Michigan University Cooley Law School have teamed up to receive two federal grants totaling more than $1 million to assist in reviewing 600 post-conviction claims of innocence.

The announcement comes six months after Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel launched one of the nation’s first statewide conviction integrity units (CIU) to ensure no one continues to be incarcerated for a crime they did not actually commit.

The Michigan Department of Attorney General received $734,930 from the Postconviction Testing of DNA Evidence grant and WMU-Cooley Law School received $274,960 from the Upholding the Rule of Law grant.

The grants support reviewing criminal convictions, improving the integrity of the criminal justice system, and ensuring the consistent application of due process of law.

“We have a responsibility to ensure those convicted of state crimes by county prosecutors and our office are in fact guilty of those crimes,” Nessel said.

The grants, she said, “not only provide our office with the financial resources needed to review these cases, but they will also ensure a rigorous and detailed evaluation that keeps dangerous offenders out of Michigan communities, while providing justice to those wrongfully convicted.”

As part of the grants’ requirements, the Attorney General’s Conviction Integrity Unit — led by former criminal defense attorney and now Assistant Attorney General Robyn Frankel – and the WMU-Cooley Law School Innocence Project will work jointly to review credible claims of innocence to determine whether outdated or unreliable forensic practices played a role in a conviction.

The grants will cover the cost of case reviews, evidence location, testing or retesting of evidence, the application of new forensic tools, and the hiring of additional staff.

To date, the Attorney General’s CIU has received more than 500 requests for assistance.

The WMU-Cooley Innocence Project currently has approximately 175 cases under review which may meet grant criteria.

Since its inception in 2001, the WMU-Cooley

Innocence Project has screened more than 5,800 cases and will bring its years of experience in case review to the collaboration.

WMU-Cooley Innocence Project Director Marla Mitchell-Cichon welcomes the partnership.

“We look forward to working with the Attorney General’s Conviction Integrity Unit. Both offices have the same goals — to rectify wrongful convictions and to improve Michigan’s criminal justice system.” said Mitchell-Cichon.

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