Monday, 11 August 2008

Law students to work on freeing innocent inmates

The odds will be steep, the clients reviled and the long path ahead is already marked by rejection and failure.

But that's just fine when the potential payoff is freedom and justice, said University of Michigan law professors David Moran and Bridget McCormack.

Moran and McCormack are spending the summer setting up the Michigan Innocence Clinic, a student law clinic to challenge what they believe are wrongful convictions of innocent people. They plan to be fully under way by the winter semester, and in the fall they plan to select student participants and begin reviewing potential cases.

Their model is the famed Innocence Project founded by Barry Scheck, part of O.J. Simpson's legal dream team, but with a crucial difference: Their appeals will not be based on DNA or similar scientific material.

Instead, they will go after jailhouse snitches, lazy lawyers, shady cops and overlooked evidence.

Scheck, who knows both Moran and McCormack, said in an e-mail that such legal clinics are needed because "only 5 to 10% of all criminal cases involve biological evidence that could be subjected to DNA testing."

The clinic was just accepted as part of the Innocence Network, a national organization of groups investigating and overturning wrongful convictions. The Thomas M. Cooley Law School in Lansing has a DNA-based innocence program.

Even though the U-M clinic has not officially started, "the letters from prisoners are already pouring in," said Moran, who joined the U-M faculty after stints with Wayne State University and the State Appellate Defenders Office.

The Innocence Clinic will be a program where selected students will investigate and work on cases in which all the traditional and routine appeals have been exhausted but that appear to be wrongful convictions.

And because they are not focused on DNA, the clinic's cases will expose students to frauds, thefts and other crimes and give them hands-on experience tracking down and interviewing witnesses, surveying crime scenes, reviewing case files and revisiting old police files.

Moran brings a fighting spirit to classes and courts, said Timothy Baughman, head of appeals for the Wayne County Prosecutor's Office who held joint seminars with Moran and squared off against him in cases that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

"I always want the defendant to have the best representation possible, and professor Moran provides that to his clients," Baughman said.

To winnow promising cases from the meritless jailhouse "I was framed" chorus, Moran and McCormack put together a 19-page questionnaire covering witness, confessions, tests, evidence and past attorneys.

Moran said they take on cases knowing they have to meet a higher standard just to get back into court: "We are looking for new evidence -- and we have to show why that evidence that wasn't presented the first time and why the new evidence is likely to result in an acquittal."

McCormack said students will be asked to commit to spending at least two semesters with the clinic -- twice the usual commitment.

"The case we take will tend to be big and sprawling, so we'll have to start slowly," she said.

Moran said the clinic could work up to 10 years on a case, meaning that a project could pass through the hands of dozens of aspiring lawyers, training them in identifying appellate issues and investigative techniques.

DNA exonerations have captured the public imagination, and television shows like "CSI" have given criminal justice the patina of scientific certainty from microscopic examination of blood and other biological bits.

Real life, real crime is much messier, Moran said, and not so sure: "We're looking for different kinds of evidence."

Wrongful convictions, he said, tend to fall into major categories, including mistaken eyewitnesses, incompetent lawyers, police or prosecutor misconduct, jailhouse snitches and discredited clinical or investigative processes.

"Bad science is a red flag," Moran said, explaining that human hair and bite comparisons used for years in court have not stood up to rigorous challenges.

Likewise, he said, longtime standard techniques in arson investigations are coming under question.

"Our students will see the whole range -- from murder to fraud," Moran said.

Contact JOE SWICKARD at 313-222-8769 or

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