Description of original award (Fiscal Year 2022, $550,000)
In 2019, the Michigan Attorney General’s office has placed itself on the cutting edge of criminal justice reform by establishing one of the first statewide conviction integrity units (CIU) in the nation. To date, the CIU has exonerated four individuals. Advances in forensic science are happening daily, providing prosecutors and defense attorneys with powerful information that can be used both to exonerate and to convict. The CIU was created to address the issue of wrongful convictions. This grant project, a partnership with the WMU-Cooley Innocence Project (Cooley IP), will promote that goal on two fronts. First, the grant project will seek to investigate and rectify cases of wrongful conviction throughout the state. Second, the grant project will develop procedures, training, and best practices to help prevent future wrongful incarceration, including a special project to promote evidence preservation. An important goal of this project is to develop a cooperative screening protocol that will serve as a model for CIU partnerships across the country. The Cooley IP’s years of experience in DNA case screening provides this grant partnership with a unique opportunity to improve access to postconviction DNA testing and to inform criminal justice reform throughout the state of Michigan and beyond. The CIU currently has over 1,000 requests for assistance and the Cooley IP currently has approximately 252 cases under review which would fall under the purview of the CIU. The goal of this project is to review 300 of these cases that involve claims of innocence in violent felony cases. This strategic partnership will continue to bring together people with decades of experience to jointly screen cases to determine whether testing might be beneficial to the determination of guilt or innocence, without litigation. The CIU and Cooley IP will meticulously follow the chain of custody documents to locate evidence. The CIU’s ability to locate evidence and agree to testing will speed up the process and has already led to the agreement to test in over 14 cases. While the Michigan State Police will be able to conduct some of the testing, the grant funding will allow the parties to test at private laboratories when needed. This project will serve as a model for other states’ collaborative efforts between CIUs and innocence organizations and allow for justice to be delivered more efficiently where forensic science can help provide conclusive answers.