How WMU Cooley Law Innocence Project uses DNA, forensic evidence to help the wrongfully imprisoned

Donya Davis' world has been the stuff of nightmares. Wrongly accused, convicted, and sentenced to prison. The common claim of innocence that no one believes. Little access to information and resources. No money for legal help. A nightmare.

Davis, 38, and father of 12, was convicted in 2007 of car jacking, armed robbery and rape -- crimes he  insisted he didn't commit. He was sentenced to 67 years in prison. And in 2014 -- seven years into his sentence -- the WMU Cooley Law Innocence Project was able to obtain post-conviction DNA evidence that supported his innocence.

Three months after that evidence was presented to the Wayne County prosecutor's office, Davis was released from prison. And five months after that charges against him were dismissed based on insufficient evidence.

Davis says his mom spent the seven years he was in prison grieving, going financially and emotionally bankrupt in her attempts to help her son prove he was not guilty. Seeing her upon his release was everything, he says.

“It was almost like she was in prison with me, mentally. It tore her up bad,”  he says. “I think it took more of a toll on her than it did me. My main thing was getting home to her to get that problem off of her.” 

You would think Davis' release and subsequent reunion with his family would be the beginning of a fairytale ending, right? Well, not quite. After the tears and hugs and rejoicing were over, it was time to re-integrate into the real world again. A real world that didn't stop in those years that he was in prison; a real world in which even exonerated individuals still carry arrest and conviction records. A real world in which Davis continues to struggle in his ongoing battle to find sustainable income.

Marla Mitchell-Cichon is a lawyer, professor at WMU Cooley Law School, and the director of The Western Michigan Cooley Law Innocence Project. The program falls under the national network, The Innocence Project, and like the umbrella organization, Mitchell-Cichon says that her office works to clear factually innocent people by obtaining and reviewing DNA and forensics evidence post-conviction. 

The Cooley project was started in 2001, shortly after Michigan passed MCL 770.16, the State's post-conviction DNA testing law. That law provides a clear avenue for wrongfully convicted individuals to prove their innocence through DNA evidence and also helps to ensure that the actual perpetrator of the crime is identified and brought to justice. 

Since then, three people have been exonerated through the efforts of the Cooley Law Innocence Project, its portion of the 329 prisoners released nationwide after the results of DNA testing showed they were wrongfully accused as a result of the work of the Innocence Network.

Last year, The Cooley Innocence Project was awarded a Department of Justice grant, which allows funding for a full-time staff attorney for two years, and helps engage undergraduate students at WMU in the case screening and review process. It also provides money for DNA testing, investigative services and the hiring of experts to assist on casework.  The $418,000 grant was one of the largest awarded for reversing wrongful convictions by the DOJ in 2015.

When lack of resources and investment collide 

It's a wonder Mitchell-Cichon finds any time to sleep. It's a Saturday afternoon and she and Davis meet in her office to go over what's happening in his life and to find out how Mitchell-Cichon can support him. He's only in town for a few days, having recently moved to Alabama for work, following two years of nothing but dead ends in Michigan. They invite me to call them and chat about Davis' case and how the Innocence Project helped him. Two years out from exoneration, Mitchell-Cichon's professional obligation to Davis is certainly over, but it's clear it's not that easy to let go and ignore someone who's foundering in the aftermath of a wrongful conviction.  

As I listen to them joke about how Davis could school Mitchell-Cichon on DNA science after all of the reading he did on the topic while in prison (he pored through 20 to 30 books a day, he says, and thousands and thousands of pages), and hear the emotion in Davis' voice, when he describes the feeling he had when the Cooley Innocence Project took his case, it becomes obvious why Mitchell-Cichon can't work on these cases, forget about them, and move on. 

Davis' freedom was obtained – and that's huge – but, trying to reintegrate into a society that isn't set up to support people like him feels a little like a fish trying to swim upstream. He's treading water at best, and drifting downriver at worst. 

As his pro-bono legal support for the last five of his seven years served, Mitchell-Cichon has grown invested in way more than his release. “My office isn't designed to assist these individuals with all of the collateral issues that they face (post-exoneration),” Mitchell-Cichon says. “We do it and I do it because I want to and because I want Donya to succeed because I believe in him. But if I had three guys come out this year, that would be basically impossible for my office to do that work.”

Wrongful imprisonment compensation act could help

Mitchell-Cichon says that, while imperfect, parolees have access to certain programs that are in place to help them re-enter society. A person who has been exonerated, like Davis, doesn't have access to those programs. And what's worse, he's stuck with the arrest and criminal records that he has to continually try to explain away. Most employers -- even sympathetic ones -- don't want to take a chance.

Sen. Steven Bieda from Macomb County has sponsored a bill, which would provide compensation for people who have been wrongfully imprisoned. Bieda became interested in post-release issues of those who have been exonerated when he learned about a case from his constituency. 

The bill, SB 291, is a proposed law that would offer those who have been exonerated some compensation for the time that they served. The bill would provide annual monetary compensation for each year of wrongful incarceration; economic damages for lost wages and attorney fees; and expungement of records of the person's criminal history. The bill is waiting to be heard on the senate floor for a vote. 

Mitchell-Cichon says that more than half of the states in the nation already have compensation laws on the books. “The idea (behind a compensation law) is not about punishing anybody. You can never make somebody whole by giving them money.” But, she says, “you can try to at least level the playing field so that they have the resources and the time that they would have otherwise had, or that they certainly missed, because they were in prison, wrongfully.”

When Mitchell-Cichon is not trying cases, she's working to educate people about how critically important it is to support those who have been exonerated when they get out of prison. 

“We're doing a disservice to our communities, as well, because if we're going to get parolees services, we've got to give people who didn't go to prison for the right reasons services,” she says. “Years of their life has been taken away from them through no fault of their own.”

You can learn more about The WMU Cooley Law Innocence Project by visiting its website. If you'd like to tell your state senator how you feel about the proposed wrongful imprisonment compensation bill, you can find him or her, here

Kathi Valeii is a freelance writer, living in Kalamazoo. You can find her at her website, kathivaleii.com.

 
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