WMU-Cooley clinic commemorates Wrongful Conviction Day with hope for compensation



by Cynthia Price
Legal News

Michigan is one of 20 states in the union which offer no compensation to those who serve time when they are later proven not to have committed the crime for which they were convicted.  In addition, as some would be surprised to find out, the exonerated do not even qualify for the normal re-entry services offered to released prisoners.

If those at the WMU-Cooley Innocence Project, which includes Law School students as well as support from classes at Western Michigan University, have their way, that would change.

A bill making its way through the Michigan legislature has been the hot topic of conversation for Marla Mitchell-Cichon, the Director of the WMU-Cooley Innocence Project as well as for her staff and students. Mitchell-Cichon and a host of others have spoken with legislators and educated the public on the need.

The bill, introduced in the Senate by Sen. Steve Bieda with bipartisan support, would provide $60,000 compensation per year to the wrongfully convicted for each year from the date of imprisonment to the date of release, even if release was due to parole or because the full sentence was served. Copious documentation is required so fraudulent claims are nearly impossible.

The Senate has passed the bill, SB 0291, and it has been introduced as HB 4536 in the House by Rep. Stephanie Chang. Since there is not much time left in the current session, people who urge passage feel a sense of urgency.
The topic certainly came up at an Oct. 3 event celebrating the third annual Wrongful Conviction Day, which this year fell on a Saturday (Oct. 4).

The International Wrongful Conviction Day was created by a group of individuals, many of whom work with the national Innocence Project, with which the WMU-Cooley is also affiliated. It seeks to educate about the associated personal and legal costs and recognizes the people who have been wrongfully convicted.

An event held at the Western Michigan University Lee Honors College centered on Donya Davis, the most recent exoneree helped by the WMU-Cooley clinic. Dr. Kuersten, who is the principal investigator in a recent Department of Justice grant to involve WMU students in screening potential cases, gathering information, reviewing trial records, and communicating with key individuals, conducted a poignant conversation with Davis before an audience of 40 to 50 students and members of the public.

The soft-spoken Davis said that after his release, he was just dropped off, not even told where to get a bus. He credits his survival to the incredibly hard work and diligent sacrifice of his mother, Denise Larry. He wondered how others without such dedicated family members could make it.

WMU-Cooley Innocence Project, started in 2001 by Professor Norman Fell after the state of Michigan passed a post-conviction DNA law, has obtained exonerations for three individuals, Davis, Kenneth Wyniemko, and Nathanial Hatchett.
The DOJ grant was necessitated, in part, by the national Innocence Project, affiliated with the Cardozo School of Law in New York, announcing that it will no longer handle Michigan cases. This added about 200 cases to the WMU-Cooley caseload. 

The funding also facilitated the hiring of Ayda Rezaian-Nojani as a staff attorney.

Nationally, upwards of 330 individuals have been exonerated by Innocence Projects.