The following opinion by Nolan Finley was published by the Detroit News on April 1, 2017.
If real life read more like a Hollywood script, the prison doors would swing open and the wrongly convicted inmate would walk out to freedom as soon as evidence surfaced to prove his innocence.
That’s not how it works in Michigan.
It can take years to undo a bad conviction and unlock the cell door.
Even when physical evidence like DNA and fingerprints is conclusive. Even when witnesses recant their testimony. And even when someone else confesses to the crime.
That shouldn’t be true. Once there is strong evidence to suggest an innocent person might be behind bars, the top priority of the legal system should be determining the legitimacy of the claim and, if it holds up, getting him or her out.
Justice moves slowly for good reasons; both the defendants and prosecutors need adequate time to prepare their cases, and the courts aren’t fast food joints — getting it right takes time.
But when an innocent person is living the nightmare of prison, time matters.
Dave Moran, who directs the University of Michigan Innocence Clinic, says exoneration of the cases he’s been involved in took on average of four years — and that’s after months or years have already been spent gathering and analyzing evidence. The clinic has had some cases take up to nine years to move through the system.
In many instances, getting the evidence requires Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests and, if the information isn’t delivered, going to court to get it released. That would be one place to look if the goal is to take time off the process.
The request for a rehearing based on new or re-examined evidence often goes before the same judge who heard the case, and could be handled by the same prosecutor. That creates an environment of defensiveness, a reluctance to see the case in a new light, and an instinct to stall.
Nearly all of the wrongful conviction filings eventually end up in the Court of Appeals, where things really slow down. The cases go to the bottom of the pile and have to work their way to the top.
Expediting the process is not easy, but it is something the Michigan legal system should examine.
Fast-tracking cases where the evidence of wrongful conviction is compelling would be a start.
But first, a process for establishing credibility must be put in place.
I covered prisons early in my career and learned one thing: Everyone in the pen is innocent — according to them. The state would have to be able to separate the seemingly legitimate claims from the obviously frivolous ones.
The state attorney general’s office might be able to do that by setting up a procedure for reviewing the evidence and moving the credible cases onto a fast track. There’s a downside to that approach — if the AG’s office deems a case as illegitimate, it could hurt its chances in the courts.
The appeals courts should treat wrongful conviction claims as they do parental custody cases and give them an expedited timetable.
Beyond that, it’s absolutely essential the courts change absurd rules that allow judges to deny a request for relief if the evidence the appeal is based on was available during the original trial, but not presented. There are a lot of reasons evidence and testimony might have been held back.
There are no good reasons for keeping the wrong person locked up based on a technicality.
It should bother us all to know there are innocent people rotting away in our prisons. With a turn of fate, that could be you or me. If there are things we can do to right this wrong, we should be all over them.