By Sheila Pursglove
Dwayne Provience spent nearly a decade in prison for a 2001 murder he did not commit, before the Michigan Innocence Clinic exposed the fact the Detroit man had been convicted on the basis of perjury and official misconduct, and his conviction was thrown out.
Provience’s lawsuit against the city of Detroit appeared destined to win—until the Motor City’s bankruptcy put his case on hold.
“Now he must wait in line with thousands of other unsecured creditors and will ultimately collect only pennies on the dollar from what he would otherwise be entitled to,” says Imran Syed, a clinical fellow and staff attorney in the Michigan Innocence Clinic who is working on a documentary about this case.
While every wrongful conviction is sad, this double tragedy—and one of the Clinic’s first exonerations—makes for an especially interesting demonstration, Syed says.
“I hope it will truly open people’s eyes to all that goes wrong in our justice system every day, which is, of course, the first step to rectifying those flaws. Beyond that, Dwayne is the kindest, most inspirational person you could ever meet, and I wanted to make it so more people could learn and enjoy his story.”
With a job lined up almost immediately after leaving prison, Provience has worked hard to get his life on track. His eldest two children have made it to college—a testament to the hard work Provience, and his family did to overcome the effects of the injustice he faced, Syed notes.
“I want people to know that wrongful conviction affects good people like Dwayne, not just nameless, faceless ‘people who probably had it coming anyway,’ as is often assumed.”
With filming completed in November, the documentary is in the editing phase, and Syed hopes to wrap it up by summer. He is collecting donations for this self-financed venture, to pay for ongoing production and labor costs, as well as upcoming distribution efforts. Donations can be made at www.gofundme.com/5nrg18.
Syed says he has seen some of the saddest cases of injustice imaginable at the Michigan Innocence Clinic—including a mentally ill man framed by neighbors for reward money, and a man who lost his wife and daughters in a house fire, only to be wrongfully convicted of arson. Both spent more than 25 years in prison before the Clinic won back their freedom.
“Stories like that made it clear to me that there could be no other job I’d rather do,” Syed says. “My legal skills could have no better outlet than to help innocent people win back their lives.”
Syed first came to the Innocence Clinic while a student at Michigan Law, after earning his undergrad in political science at U-M. As a first-year law student, he was fascinated by all the intricacies that the law and the legal process entail.
“But I was also a little disappointed to find that the legal process is often quite robotic, far removed from human consequences,” he says.
That all changed in his second year, when he was accepted for enrollment in the Clinic.
“The Innocence Clinic showed me a whole other side of the law, and its immense power both to destroy and redeem a person.”
After spending two years in the Clinic as a student attorney, he became its first full-time staff attorney after his May 2011 graduation, and is in his third year at the job.
“I’ll stay here as long as I can,” he says. “Training other students to do the work that so greatly inspired me is truly a privilege. I’m pleased to see so many law students find, as I did, that the legal profession is a great enabler, and so much good can be done by those who choose to work in this field.”
Many of Syed’s students have gone on to be public defenders and civil rights litigators.
“But I know that regardless of what career they go into, the experience of working here will never leave them,” he says. “They see here firsthand the devastating power of the law, and they will be responsible stewards of it. In a day and age when the legal profession is constantly under fire for its role in financial or political scandals, I hope people will also see there is another side to the profession, embodied by young men and women who came into this field to do good, and who sacrifice money and comfort to actually follow through on that goal. I’m proud to have had many students who chose this path.”
While the Clinic’s caseload, consisting solely of non-DNA cases, remains large and varied, Syed has become somewhat of a specialist on arson cases, having overseen the Clinic’s two most significant arson exonerations, in 2012 and in early 2014.
“In the field of arson, there were long-held pseudoscientific assumptions that led to the conviction of countless innocent men and women in the 1980s and ‘90s. However, scientific research has since improved the profession and exposed past mistakes,” he explains.
He has researched and written about how advances in scientific knowledge do or should affect criminal convictions that were obtained based on outdated scientific theories.
“It’s a fascinating question with often-difficult answers,” he says. “Science is defined by its continuing evolution, whereas the law values finality and continuity. This dichotomy can have dangerous consequences, but fortunately, in our science based cases, we’ve so far been able to convince courts that changes in science are significant factors and may well invalidate a previously valid conviction.”
The Clinic’s first arson case was the inspiration for a Law Review article Syed co-wrote with former law school classmate Caitlin Plummer—a current colleague at the Innocence Clinic—on wrongful convictions based on scientific evidence that is later repudiated; the article was published in 2012 by the Stanford Journal of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties.
In addition to his legal writing, he has always been interested in journalism, especially editorial writing and arts and entertainment writing. An editorial columnist for more than seven years, he wrote nearly 500 film and TV reviews during college and law school, and interviewed several actors including Christian Bale, Keri Russell and Michael Clarke Duncan. While he has less time for that sort of writing now, those interests carry over into his current work on the documentary about Dwayne Provience.
Syed recalls that his first brush with the legal profession was attending an elementary school in Detroit named for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes.
“It would be many years later before I’d discover the significance of the man whose peculiar name I’ve known since the age of 9,” he says.
Syed’s parents, who brought their family to Michigan from New Delhi, India, in 1995, still live in the Detroit suburbs; his mother is a professor of sociology at Wayne State University, his father a social worker at Detroit Receiving Hospital; and his sister is a physician in Tucson.
In his leisure time, Syed enjoys watching movies and sports.
“I’ve been a Michigan fan since moving to this country, and I never miss a basketball or football game,” he says. “As for films, I don’t think I ever stopped being a critic in my mind, and I try to catch every significant film in theaters, which is often quite a challenge, given my work schedule.”