Michigan law enforcement officers are aiming to right some wrongs.
Dana Nessel, the state’s attorney general, launched a Conviction Integrity Unit within the department’s Criminal Appellate Division to investigate credible claims of innocence that would overturn a conviction. The unit will be led by criminal defense attorney Robyn B. Frankel.
“We have a duty to ensure those convicted of state crimes by county prosecutors and our office are in fact guilty of those crimes,” Nessel said. “By establishing this unit, we will work to make certain those ethical and legal obligations are met while providing justice to those wrongfully imprisoned and keeping dangerous offenders out of Michigan communities.”
According to Kelly Rossman-McKinney, communications director for the attorney general’s office, the determination of viability would be made on a case-by-case basis based on a variety of information, including new evidence, new witnesses, witnesses changing their story, availability of more sophisticated scientific testing like DNA, etc.
If the case is deemed viable, the unit will conduct its own investigation by interviewing victims, witnesses and testing physical evidence using the most updated scientific techniques to determine whether there is substantial evidence that proves the claimant is innocent of the crime(s) for which he or she was convicted and sentenced, per the Department of Attorney General.
If necessary, the unit will work with county prosecutors, law enforcement, defense attorneys and innocence clinics to make its determination. Once the determination that an individual was wrongly convicted is made, Nessel will take the appropriate remedial action, which may include vacating the convictions and dismissing the charges against them.
According to the Michigan Department of Corrections’ most recent numbers, the state’s courts delivered 47,347 convictions in 2016, with some individuals receiving more than one conviction.
The Kent County Prosecutor’s Office said it has about 5,000 convictions per year. Over the years, some of those cases have been overturned, however.
Christopher Becker, Kent County prosecutor, said there was a case that involved two former Kent County corrections officers who were arrested and charged for using marijuana butter. That case was overturned because both were registered medical marijuana patients. Becker said that case also is going through the appeals process, however.
Another Kent County case that was overturned was People v. Musser. John Musser was convicted of criminal sexual conduct, assault and battery of an 11-year-old.
According to the Michigan Supreme Court, the case was overturned because portions of the defendant’s videotaped interrogation were played for the jury, which showed the officer’s repeated assertions of his opinion that the complainant was credible. The court found the admission of the interrogator’s statements during the interview did not satisfy the state’s rules for “relevant evidence” was not sufficiently useful to the trial process.
“Even if they did, any probative value was substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice in this case where the trial was a credibility contest between the complainant and the defendant,” the court stated. “No physical evidence existed to support the allegations.”
The attorney general’s office said the idea for establishing its own Conviction Integrity Unit was inspired by Wayne County’s Conviction Integrity Unit founded by that county’s prosecutor, Kym Worthy, and headed by Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Valerie Newman.
The state’s Conviction Integrity Unit will review eligible claims of innocence arising from state-law convictions in each of Michigan’s counties (other than Wayne County) using existing court records and any newly discovered evidence submitted by claimants.
The unit will begin the intake process no later than this summer, according to Nessel.