U-M Attorney to speak on work with Michigan Innocence Clinic at Jackson Law Day event

 By Jo Mathis

Legal News
 
Prisons are full of men and women who claim they’re innocent.
Imran Syed has made it his life’s mission to prove that some actually are, and that their cases are both tragic and fixable.
“The reason we struggle to do this kind of work is because people don’t really know enough, and if people knew enough, they would definitely be on the side of the innocent person who is trying to get out of prison,” said Syed, a staff attorney with the University of Michigan Innocence Clinic, which has helped secure the release of 25 innocent prisoners since it began in 2009. “So that’s why I’ll do anything I can to raise awareness about these cases and how tragic they are, and how random they are.”
Syed, 27, looks forward to being the keynote speaker at a Law Day event at the Country Club of Jackson today because he is eager for more people to realize the tragedy of these situations, as well as the fact that something can be done.
Syed will talk about his work as a staff attorney and teaching fellow at the University of Michigan Innocence Clinic, and some of the big, eye-opening cases. 
While it’s a wonderful thing to free the innocent, it’s far better for the injustice to never have occurred in the first place, said Syed.
“I find that when I do these talks, people aren’t even aware of what our clinic does and of our more significant cases,” he said. 
These cases have nothing to do with what kind of person the defendant is, he said.
“We make mistakes in life—prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, everyone does,” said Syed. “If there’s no way to correct them, then there are some massive injustices just sitting around.”
Syed was a University of Michigan law student in 2010 when he first learned about David Gavitt. In 1985, Gavitt was a 26-year-old husband and father of two when a fire broke out in his Ionia home after he and his wife had gone into their bedroom, leaving the television on and candles burning in the living room.
Despite Gavitt’s attempts to rescue them, his wife and two daughters were killed in the fire, and Gavitt was eventually sentenced to life in prison as an arsonist and murderer. 
He then spent the next 27 years in prison wondering who had killed his family. After all, the prosecution had proved it was arson, and even his own defense attorney hadn’t challenged the state’s determination that an arsonist had started the fire.
As it turned out, no one had set the fire. Syed’s team closely examined the science used to convict him, and proved it was junk; that there was no evidence of arson, and that it was most likely accidental.
A few decades ago, experts made false assumptions about how fires behave, and the usual investigative process was thereby skipped, Syed said. So for many years, people involved in those fires were sometimes wrongly imprisoned. And while not every one is innocent, Syed believes that every one does deserve a fresh look at the case now that it is known that the scientific underpinning of those assumptions was completely false, and that arson fires and accidental fires can leave behind the same physical markers.
On June 6, 2012, Gavitt was released from prison, with Syed at his side.
The single biggest thing to reduce wrongful convictions in this state would be to form an organized, independent public defender office across the street, he said.
He doesn’t like the county-by-county model, but said Washtenaw County’s Public Defender Office is not only unique, but immensely better than other counties.
“Having an independent office the way Washtenaw County does would be far, far better for a county like Wayne than just having cases assigned at the judge’s whim, which is what happens right now,” he said.
Some cases involve junk science, jailhouse snitches, lying witnesses, and ineffective attorneys.
He hopes the case of David Gavitt will prove that such injustices happen to ordinary people just like them.
 “The fact that a case like David Gavitt’s can be won today says something good about our state,” he said. “It says that we don’t slam the door on people like this.”
Right now, the Michigan Innocence Clinic is helping a Battle Creek man, Andrew Babick, who is serving a life sentence for the 1995 fire which led to the deaths of two children. Syed said the evidence of arson was again, junk science.
“He’s done enough time in prison for something he didn’t do,” he said.
Syed, of Canton, had a job with a Detroit law firm all lined up when he was graduating, but when the fulltime staff attorney at the Innocence Clinic came up—with a salary of less than half of what the other job paid—he jumped at it.
“The legal profession gets a bad rap for greedy lawyers doing disgusting things,” he said, “when the reality is that there are a lot of people in law school who are here for the right reasons.”

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