Thursday, March 23, 2023

Wrongly convicted get help

November 22, 2000

DNA can help lock criminals away - now it can help get them out as well.

Lansing’s Thomas Cooley Law School has started an Innocence Project for the state to help find and release innocent people serving time in jail.

“That’s what this is all about - getting people who are in prison out because they are not the people who committed the crime,” said Norman Fell, director of the project. “If our system isn’t working correctly, then we try to fix the flaws in our system. We don’t have a perfect system of justice.

“It’s just socially and morally wrong to let them languish their life away in jail for something they didn’t do.”

Fell, who is a lawyer and a full-time professor at Cooley, said DNA testing has only been sophisticated enough to convict criminals in court for the past two years and was only discovered about ten years ago, so there could be many people wrongfully put in jail because such tests could not be used to prove their innocence.

“The problem is, what about all these people who were convicted before this type of evidence was available?” he said. “There was a study done by the National Institute of Justice in which they matched DNA samples against the primary suspects in rape cases. The person who was primarily the suspect was incorrect 26 percent of the time. A good number of those, if they had gone to trial, probably would have been convicted.

“Michigan has 50,000 people in prison. If even one percent of those were wrongfully convicted we’d be talking 450 to 500 people.”

The project will officially begin in January with the school’s next term. It will include students, faculty at Cooley and 160 lawyers across the state who have volunteered their time for the project.

Fell said the project probably won’t start taking cases until spring so they have time to establish the infrastructure of the program.

Martin Tieber, an adjunct professor at Cooley and director of the Lansing office for the State Appellate Defender, said he got the idea to bring the project to Michigan because of innocence projects across the country.

There are about seven or eight innocence projects in effect in the United States, and more are popping up all the time, Fell said.

“Because of recent advances in DNA, I got the notion that we should get something up and running in our state,” said Tieber, who will be on the oversight commission for the project. “I think we’re going to get a lot of inquiries. It could be a lengthy process to winnow out the good cases.”

Terry Franklin, director of communications at Cooley, said this program will be a good experience for their students to be involved in.

“The students would actually be involved in reviewing these cases,” she said. “When (potential cases) are actually reviewed and approved, in the spring we will actually begin taking cases.”


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