'Making a Murderer'-based events are teaching tools for WMU-Cooley


by Linda Laderman, Legal News,
with notes by Cynthia Price and WMU-Cooley

Two recent events at WMU-Cooley Law School sought to take advantage of the popularity of the TV?series Making a Murderer to teach students about ethics and the potential for a miscarriage of justice.

The Student Federal Bar Association (FBA) at  WMU-Cooley Law School Grand Rapids Campus hosted the panel discussion, “When the Ethical Boundary is Crossed: Potential Misconduct in the Steven Avery Story.” Making a Murderer highlighted the Steven Avery trial and what led to it. The panel discussed the trial’s potential misconduct in the criminal justice system.

The discussion was moderated by Zeno Toscas, FBA president. Panelists included Tracy Brame, WMU-Cooley Law School assistant dean; Victoria Vuletich, WMU-Cooley professor; Ayda Rezaian-Nojani, Innocence Project staff attorney who, until recently, worked for the Access to Justice clinic at the Grand Rapids campus; and Jonathan Paasch, WMU-Cooley law student and Walker police officer.  The discussion was also streamed live at WMU-Cooley Law School’s Lansing campus.

“The panel was a great vehicle for bringing real world criminal misconduct to the law students to realize how critical the legal principles and ethics they study are,” said Vuletich, who teaches courses in Professional Responsibility and Ethics at WMU-Cooley Law School’s Grand Rapids campus. “Often, the only thing standing between an innocent person and a miscarriage of justice is an attorney or judge's personal integrity and self awareness.  At WMU-Cooley, it is not enough that our graduates know the law. We want them to conduct themselves with the highest integrity at all times."

The other event is detailed by Linda Laderman below:

Sentenced in 1988 in Wayne County, for a murder they didn’t commit, the Highers brothers, Tommy and Raymond, served 25 years of a life sentence before they were exonerated in 2013.

Tommy Highers, along with Western Michigan University Cooley Law School criminal law assistant professor Erika Breitfeld and State Appellate Defender Valerie Newman, recently revisited the Highers brothers’ ordeal for law students when the school’s Criminal Law Society presented “Making a Murderer.”

The 60 law students who attended the March 22 program watched the 2014 “Dateline” segment on the case, followed by remarks from Highers and Newman.

According to Breitfeld, the meeting was as instructive as it was reflective on what defense attorneys and prosecutors should to do to bring a case to a just conclusion.

“This was an example to young lawyers on the importance of principle, of understanding how powerful a job an attorney can do,” Breitfeld said. “Think of the practice of law as the pursuit of justice, don’t keep track of your wins. That is not being a great lawyer.

“Because I am a former prosecutor and Valerie is a State Appellate Defender, we often discuss ways we can promote justice rather than an ‘Us versus Them’ mentality in the criminal justice system,” Breitfeld said. “We brought this to our students to give them the opportunity to ask questions about how this horrible mistake happened.”

For that purpose, Newman and Highers dissected the case from its beginning with the 1987 murder of drug dealer, “Old Man Bob” Robert Karey, to the Highers brothers’ 1988 conviction and exoneration 25 years later.

Throughout an unsuccessful 18-year appeals process, the brothers maintained their innocence and belief that justice would be served.

But not until a seemingly innocuous 2009 Facebook post prompted a series of events that led to fresh revelations in the case did the court agree to hear the new evidence.

Newman, who represented the brothers after new developments in the case were brought to her attention, and Highers recounted how the brothers voluntarily went to the police, without legal counsel, to talk about the murder after a jailhouse informant said he heard the brothers were involved in the murder.

“So they go talk to the police and never walk about again,” Newman said.

Added Highers, “If I’d committed that crime, I’d never went there. I was there for 72 hours before I knew I was in trouble. That’s when everything started.”

According to Newman, a person of interest voluntarily talking to the police is not unusual because he or she knows they’ve done nothing wrong.

“It is a hallmark of the wrongfully convicted,” Newman said.

“Don’t believe everything the police say,” Newman said. “It is your job to question, to investigate, to find an alternative story. I’ve had clients who were charged with first degree murder when the guy died of natural causes.”

In support of Newman’s determination to fill in the gaps that were created during the Highers brothers’ litigation, Breitfeld said, “I haven’t been privy to the documents in the case, but to me the case was circumstantial, which is okay, but there were so many questions that were left unanswered.”

Breitfeld said she wants her students to take away the importance of being willing to question how the case can be best handled and to critically think regardless if you are a defense attorney or the prosecutor.

“There is a gap with this generation of law students that is due in part to the reliance on technology. The lack of physical evidence like a video, text or DNA does not mean you can’t prove a case. There has to be a balanced perspective.”

“The lesson is in the importance of being a great lawyer. The measure of that is the ability to be fair and ethical,” Breitfeld said. “With this presentation we are using a tragedy, a mistake to show Cooley’s law students how this could have been prevented. There could have been a different outcome.”

Your responsibility to be fair transcends your position in the case, Breitfeld said.

“Look at how important being a lawyer is in all the small but important decisions that are presented. If you’re a prosecutor, ask questions. You can still respect the police and ask for more. It is all about delivery and how you carry yourself.”