Category Archives: WMU-Cooley Innocence Project

The WMU-Cooley Innocence Project is part of the Innocence Network, which has been credited with the release of over 329 wrongfully accused prisoners mainly through the use of DNA testing. In its short life, the WMU-Cooley Innocence Project has exonerated 3 individuals: Kenneth Wyniemko, Nathaniel Hatchett, and Donya Davis.

New Year Brighter for Wrongfully Convicted Michigan Citizens

When the state puts an innocent man or woman behind bars, it has the obligation to financially support that person’s reintegration into society. For over a decade, state Senator Steve Bieda has sponsored legislation to compensate Michigan citizens who have been wrongfully convicted at the hands of the state. On December 21, Governor Rick Snyder signed into law the “Wrongful Conviction Compensation Act.”

Michigan State Sen. Steve Bieda and Rep. Stephanie Chang working to help pass legislation to compensate Michigan citizens who are wrongfully imprisoned.

Michigan State Sen. Steve Bieda and Rep. Stephanie Chang working to help pass legislation to compensate Michigan citizens who are wrongfully imprisoned.

Senate Bill 291, sponsored by Bieda, provides $50,000 for each year of incarceration to individuals convicted and imprisoned for crimes they did not commit, House Bill 5815, sponsored by state Representative Stephanie Chang, provides the reentry services to exonerees. The measures are now Public Acts 343 and 344 of 2016.

Exonerees will now be eligible for the same reentry services that Michigan parolees receive.

  • Reentry services consistent with the services received by parolees for up to two years following the date of discharge.
  • Reentry housing consistent with the traditional housing provided to parolees for up to one year following the date of discharge.
  • Assistance in obtaining vital documents, including state identification.

Exonerees previously received no assistance from the state after their wrongful conviction.

Michigan joins 31 other states, the District of Columbia and the federal government in providing compensation to the wrongfully convicted. Receiving compensation will not be automatic. Exonerees must file their claim in the Court of Claims and prove their innocence by clear and convincing evidence.

Public Acts 343 and 344 will help Michigan exonerees reintegrate back into society and improve their quality of life. You can never fully compensate someone for his or her wrongful conviction, but you can do what is just and right. The new law is a step in the right direction, bringing renewed hope for a fair and caring criminal justice system in the new year.

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WMU-Cooley Innocence Project Director Marla Mitchell-Cichon with exoneree Donya Davis.

WMU-Cooley Innocence Project Director Marla Mitchell-Cichon with Donya Davis.

The author, Marla Mitchell-Cichon, is the director of WMU-Cooley Law School’s Innocence Project.  She was honored in fall 2016 with the State Bar of Michigan’s Champion of Justice Award and Ingham County Bar Association’s Leo A. Farhat Outstanding Lawyer Award. She led the efforts for the release of WMU-Cooley Innocence Project’s client Donya Davis. Davis was wrongfully convicted of carjacking, armed robbery and rape in 2007. Davis was exonerated in 2014, and is the third client exonerated by the WMU-Cooley Innocence Project. The Project is currently working on 15 promising cases and screening approximately 200 cases for factual innocence.

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House Criminal Justice Committee Unanimously Supports Bills for the Wrongfully Convicted: Will Michigan be the 31st state to right the wrong?

Take a minute to consider all that you might lose during the years of a wrongful incarceration. Then consider how you would begin to put your life back together. Where would you live? How would you support yourself? How would you explain where you have been when you apply for a job? How would your medical and psychological needs be met? These are just a few of the challenges that Michigan citizens who have been wrongfully convicted face on a daily basis. – Director of WMU-Cooley Law School’s Innocence Project Marla Mitchell Cichon

My client, Donya Davis, is a case in point. Mr. Davis was wrongfully convicted in 1997. Mr. Davis was convicted of criminal sexual assault. At trial, Mr. Davis presented an alibi defense. And there was DNA evidence excluding Mr. Davis from the rape kit. Nevertheless, Mr. Davis was convicted after a bench trial. The WMU-Cooley Innocence Project obtained additional DNA testing in 2013 and Mr. Davis was excluded on all the tested samples and the new evidence pointed to another male contributor. In light of the post-conviction DNA results, the State agreed to the Project’s motion for new trial and all charges against Mr. Davis were dismissed in November 2014.

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In prison, Mr. Davis took advantage of all the education and training he could, including earning a paralegal certificate and attending culinary school. Fortunately, Mr. Davis has strong family support and he has worked hard to get back on his feet since his exoneration. Nevertheless, life continues to be a challenge. This week the House Criminal Justice Committee considered Senate Bill 291. The proposed law would provide compensation for wrongfully convicted Michigan citizens. If passed, Michigan would become the 31st state, along with the District of Columbia and the federal government, to provide compensation to wrongfully convicted individuals.

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The Committee also considered  House Bill 5815 which provides exonerees with the access to housing and other services. Both bills were supported unanimously by the committee. Both bills would make a difference in Mr. Davis’s life. These two pieces of legislation will give Michigan exonerees the ability to reintegrate back into society and improve their quality of life. Making these bills law is both right and just.


Blog author, Marla Mitchell-Cichon, is the director of WMU-Cooley Law School’s Innocence Project as well as the co-director of the Access to Justice Clinic for Western Michigan University Cooley Law School. Professor Mitchell-Cichon has extensive practice experience in criminal and poverty law. Her litigation experience includes practicing before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, the Ohio Supreme Court, and trial courts in both Ohio and Michigan.

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Quintessential Practical Legal Scholarship: WMU-Cooley Innocence Project Intern Joseph Daly Argues Client’s Case

Blog author, Marla Mitchell-Cichon, is the director of WMU-Cooley Innocence Project as well as the co-director of the Access to Justice Clinic for Western Michigan University Cooley Law School. Professor Mitchell-Cichon has extensive practice experience in criminal and poverty law. Her litigation experience includes practicing before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, the Ohio Supreme Court, and trial courts in both Ohio and Michigan.

What if you had to argue your first case before you passed the bar examination? Cooley graduate and legal intern Joseph Daly did just that.

Joseph Daly and Professor Marla Mitchell-Cichon at graduation in May 2016

Joseph Daly and Professor Marla Mitchell-Cichon at graduation in May 2016

In March, the WMU-Cooley Innocence Project filed a motion for a new trial on behalf of Octaviano Molina Jr., citing new evidence that casts doubt on Molina’s involvement in a 1998 rape case. Legal intern Joseph Daly wrote the motion under my supervision. He spent countless hours researching, drafting and fine-tuning his arguments.

In May, Joseph graduated from WMU-Cooley, but stayed on with the WMU-Cooley Innocence Project as a volunteer. His hard work paid off — the case was set for oral argument on the motion on June 27. In his first court appearance, Joseph argued the motion before Genesee County Circuit Court Judge Joseph J. Farah.

The Cooley Innocence Project Team

The WMU-Cooley Innocence Project team

Our office put Joseph through several practice arguments. I assured him that he was prepared for any question posed by the judge. Except for the one he was asked right out of the box. Judge Farah asked Joseph if he was familiar with the Michigan Supreme Court decision in People v. Swain. I gulped. We didn’t cover that case in our practice arguments. The case itself wasn’t particularly relevant to our case, but I was concerned the question would throw Joseph off. But then I heard Joseph respond that he was familiar with the case and that he had watched the oral arguments. Yes, I recommended to all of the innocence project interns to watch the oral arguments in the case, but students don’t always do the “extra reading.” But Joseph was thinking and acting like a lawyer.

After hearing argument, Judge Farah ordered an evidentiary hearing to consider new evidence, including DNA evidence that identifies a second man never charged with the crime. Joseph had to remind the judge that the hearing would have to be scheduled after the July bar exam.

Joseph promised Mr. Molina that he would follow through with his case to the end.  Joseph has stayed on with the project to do just that. You can’t argue with that.

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Righting Wrongs: Michigan Senate Takes First Step Toward Compensating Wrongfully Convicted Michigan Citizens.

This week Mr. Davontae Sanford was exonerated for a crime he didn’t commit. In 2008, Mr. Sanford was convicted at age 14, after his false confession led to his guilty plea to 2nd degree murder. Only one problem: he didn’t commit the crime.

WMU-Cooley Innocence Project Director Marla Mitchell-Cichon (center) and her team of interns are paving the way to right the wrongs in the criminal justice system. WMU interns: (left to right): Shay Wright, Erika Donner, Ashley Chlebek, Terry Huhn

WMU-Cooley Innocence Project Director Marla Mitchell-Cichon (center) and her team of interns are paving the way to right the wrongs in the criminal justice system. WMU interns: (left to right): Shay Wright, Erika Donner, Ashley Chlebek, Terry Huhn

Shortly after Mr. Sanford’s sentencing hearing, one of the true perpetrators, Vince Smothers told police he committed the crime. But Mr. Sanford’s conviction was not overturned until he was 23, nine years after his conviction. In a press conference on Thursday, Mr. Sanford said, “It’s over. I’m out. That’s all I wanted was my freedom.” But doesn’t this man who went to prison as a child deserve more?

That’s the focus of Senate Bill 291, a law that provides compensation ($50,000 for each year of imprisonment) to wrongfully convicted Michigan citizens. For as many years as Mr. Sanford has been incarcerated, Senator Steve Bieda, the bill’s sponsor, has worked tirelessly for a fair and just compensation law. While Mr. Sanford was enjoying his first full day of freedom, the Michigan Senate unanimously passed Senate Bill 291, the Wrongful Imprisonment Compensation Act.

Thirty states, the District of Columbia and the federal government have similar laws. Michigan’s law will provide much needed financial support and services to men and women who never should have spent a day in prison. The Senate vote means the bill will move on to the House of Representatives.

Dear House Members: Mr. Sanford deserves more.


Related bills:

No tax on compensation, SB 860, introduced by Senator David Roberson.

Wrap Around Services Bill, SB 1028, introduced today by Senator Steve Bieda.


mitchellcichon_marlaBlog author, Marla Mitchell-Cichon, is the director of WMU-Cooley Law School’s Innocence Project.  Professor Mitchell-Cichon has extensive practice experience in criminal and poverty law. Her litigation experience includes practicing before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, the Ohio Supreme Court, and trial courts in both Ohio and Michigan. She joined WMU-Cooley Law School in July 1995 and also teaches in the Sixty Plus, Inc., Elderlaw Clinic and Professional Responsibility.

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Curing the Ills of the Criminal Justice System: What Can We Do to Support Wrongfully Convicted Men and Women?

“On March 13, 2016 Darryl Hunt died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Hunt was suffering from Stage 4 cancer. But cancer was just one of many struggles that Hunt faced in his life. In 1984, he was wrongfully convicted of the rape and murder of a Winston-Salem copy editor. Hunt always maintained his innocence and was exonerated in 2004 after DNA testing excluded him from the rape kit and another man, William E. Brown, confessed to the crime. Hunt spent almost 20 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.” – Marla Mitchell-Cichon, WMU-Cooley Innocence Project Director 

Take a minute to consider all you might lose over a 20-year time span. Then consider how you would begin to put your life back together. Where would you live? How would you support yourself? How would you explain where you have been when you apply for a job? How would your medical and psychological needs be met?

These are just a few of the challenges that those who have been wrongfully convicted face.

Speakers Valerie Newman, Senator Steve Bieda, Dr. Zieva Dauber Konvisser, Kenneth Wyniemko, and Laura Caldwell (on screen)

Speakers Valerie Newman, Senator Steve Bieda, Dr. Zieva Dauber Konvisser, Kenneth Wyniemko, and Laura Caldwell (on screen)

On March 18, the WMU-Cooley Journal of Practical and Legal Scholarship teamed up with the school’s Innocence Project to present its symposium, “Is a Wrongful Conviction a Life Sentence?” A panel of distinguished experts presented both the problems and the challenges to life after exoneration.

As Laura Caldwell, director of Life After Innocence, pointed out, “As we were talking to various people we realized there’s so much need – it’s such a surreal journey and such a battle to get yourself out, but then you come back into a world where you don’t know how to do anything…” Being imprisoned for years means you don’t have a valid driver’s license, you don’t know how to use the latest technology. The average sentence served on a wrongful conviction is more than 14 years, but some have spent over 30 years in prison for crimes they didn’t commit.

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State Sen. Steve Bieda and WMU-Cooley Innocence Project client Kenneth Wyniemko have been working tirelessly to pass legislation that will compensate Michigan citizens who are wrongfully imprisoned. Senate Bill 291 would provide $50,000 for each year of wrongful imprisonment and needed services that parolees already receive from the state. But, as we learned from the panelists, no amount of money can compensate the loss experienced by men and women wrongfully convicted in our criminal justice system. “I realize and I’ve always realized that no amount of compensation can truly cover what they’ve been through,” said Bieda. Panelist Dr. Zieva Konvisser, who has focused her research on women exonerees, read heart-wrenching accounts of women who explain how you never really get your life back.

Darryl Hunt is one more tragic story where a man never really did get his life back. Darryl Hunt was the founder of The Darryl Hunt Project for Freedom and Justice and The Darryl Hunt Freedom Fights. The documentary, The Trials of Darryl Hunt chronicles the story of his wrongful conviction.

Professor Marla Mitchell-Cichon

Professor Marla Mitchell-Cichon

Blog author, Marla Mitchell-Cichon, is the director of WMU-Cooley Law School’s Innocence Project.  Professor Mitchell-Cichon has extensive practice experience in criminal and poverty law. Her litigation experience includes practicing before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, the Ohio Supreme Court, and trial courts in both Ohio and Michigan. She joined WMU-Cooley Law School in July 1995 and also teaches in the Sixty Plus, Inc., Elderlaw Clinic and Professional Responsibility.

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Sun has finally set on limiting post-conviction DNA testing in Michigan

Professor Marla Mitchell-Cichon

Professor Marla Mitchell-Cichon

Blog author, Marla Mitchell-Cichon, is the director of WMU-Cooley Law School’s Innocence Project as well as the co-director of the Access to Justice Clinic for Western Michigan University Cooley Law School. Professor Mitchell-Cichon has extensive practice experience in criminal and poverty law. Her litigation experience includes practicing before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, the Ohio Supreme Court, and trial courts in both Ohio and Michigan.

The sun has finally set on limiting post-conviction DNA testing in Michigan. On December 17, Governor Rick Snyder signed SB151 which eliminates the sunset provision of MCL 770.16. There is no longer a time bar on filing post-conviction petitions for DNA testing.

Sen. Steve Bieda (blue tie) joins all the WMU-Cooley Innocence Project team on the Capitol steps after a May 7, 2015 press conference introducing Senate Bill 291.

Sen. Steve Bieda (blue tie) joins all the WMU-Cooley Innocence Project team on the Capitol steps after a May 7, 2015 press conference introducing Senate Bill 291.

Michigan passed its first post-conviction DNA testing law in 2001. Shortly thereafter, Professor Emeritus Norman Fell founded the Cooley Innocence Project. The 2001 law was set to expire on January 1, 2006. In 2005, the law was extended to 2011 and then extended again, with a sunset of January 1, 2016. This year, Senator Steven Bieda proposed making the law permanent.

One of the key reasons the law must be permanent is the continuing advancements in DNA technology. Today’s DNA technology can yield results that the technology in 2001, 2006, and 2011 could not. DNA testing is a powerful scientific tool that can link someone to a crime scene. Post-conviction DNA testing not only can prove factual innocence, it can identify the actual perpetrator. That is exactly what happened in Kenneth Wyniemko’s case. In 2003, the Cooley project proved Mr. Wyniemko’s innocence through post-conviction DNA testing. Five years later, the actual perpetrator was identified.

WMU-Cooley Innocence Project exoneree Kenneth Wyniemko sharing his story with the press.

WMU-Cooley Innocence Project exoneree Kenneth Wyniemko sharing his story with the press.

It’s no coincidence that Senator Bieda was Wyniemko’s state representative at the time. Both Bieda, now a state senator, and Wyniemko have been tireless advocates to make Michigan’s post-conviction testing law permanent. Over the years, WMU-Cooley faculty and students have educated legislators and testified before House and Senate committees. All their hard work paid off when lawmakers passed SB 151 in early December.

Since 2001, the WMU-Cooley Innocence Project has screened over 5,000 cases. In October, the Department of Justice awarded the WMU-Cooley project a $418,000 grant to support our work. Making MCL 770.16 permanent could not have come at a better time.

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Each term, students from WMU-Cooley and Western Michigan University team up for a WMU-Cooley Innocence Project Orientation Day. The project accepts 6-10 especially qualified students to work with faculty experienced in criminal and post-conviction law to review and evaluate post-conviction cases for strong evidence of factual innocence and prepare appropriate cases for court action. Cooley Law School students, under faculty supervision, work directly on the project and are intricately involved in various operations of the project; such as creating screening procedures, obtaining and reviewing case histories, applying screening devices, investigating facts, interviewing involved persons, writing case time lines and summaries, performing case analyses, preparing written case evaluations and pleadings. To date, the WMU-Cooley Innocence Project has exonerated three individuals: Kenneth Wyniemko, Nathaniel Hatchett, and Donya Davis.

The WMU-Cooley Innocence Project is the only DNA-based innocence project in Michigan. The Project screens Michigan cases for strong claims of factual innocence. Law students and Western Michigan University undergraduates manage their own caseloads under Professor Marla Mitchell-Cichon’s supervision, along with the support of two new staff attorneys, Ayda Rezaian-Nojani and Eric Schroeder. Former staff attorneys Bill Fleener and Cassandra Babel have supported the Project’s casework as well as our legislative efforts. Professors Norman Fell, Kathy Swedlow and Donna McKneelen made significant contributions to the Project and educated legislators over the years. Countless WMU-Cooley students have screened and developed cases, providing high quality legal representation to our clients.

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WMU-Cooley Innocence Project Client Kenneth Wyniemko: Celebrating 12 Years of Freedom

WMU-Cooley Innocence Project client Kenneth Wyniemko with Marla Mitchell-Cichon, director of WMU-Cooley’s Innocence Project.

WMU-Cooley Innocence Project client Kenneth Wyniemko with Marla Mitchell-Cichon, director of the Project.

In 1970, Kenneth Wyniemko wore number 12 as a Detroit Junior Red Wing hockey player. Today, the WMU-Cooley Innocence Project and Kenneth Wyniemko are celebrating the 12th year of Ken’s freedom. Wyniemko was exonerated after DNA testing proved he was innocent.

Wyniemko spent nine years in prison for criminal sexual conduct, breaking and entering and armed robbery-crimes he didn’t commit. Through the efforts of the WMU-Cooley Innocence Project and panel attorney Gail Pamukov, Mr. Wyniemko was released from prison on June 17, 2003.

Mr. Wyniemko did not fit the victim’s description of the perpetrator and there was no physical evidence linking him to the crime. Both the police and prosecutor contributed to the wrongful conviction by eliciting a false statement from a jail inmate. Five years after his exoneration, the true perpetrator, Craig Gonser, was identified through the Combined Offender Database System (CODIS). Tragically, Gonser could not be prosecuted because the statute of limitations had run. Since then, the time limitation has been amended to prevent this injustice (MCL 767(3)(b). But another injustice continues as Michigan remains one of 20 states that do not provide compensation for those who have been wrongfully convicted.

"12" on Ken Wyniemko's birthday cake to commemorate 12 years of freedom, Mr. Wyniemko was exonerated on June 17, 2003. Wyniemko's birthday is June 15.

“12” on Ken Wyniemko’s birthday cake to commemorate 12 years of freedom, Mr. Wyniemko was exonerated on June 17, 2003. Wyniemko’s birthday is June 15.

This week Wyniemko spent his birthday, June 15, preparing to testify before the House Criminal Justice Committee in support of a compensation law that would provide $60,000 a year to Michigan’s wrongfully convicted. But it wasn’t all work and no play. WMU-Cooley Innocence Project staff and students celebrated Ken’s birthday with dinner, balloons and cake. It was a casual, fun event, but the gravity of the needed reforms was not lost in the celebration. Ken encouraged Cooley students, “I’m so glad to see young people pick up the torch for the next generation. We all want a system that works.”

On June 16, Ken and fellow exoneree, Julie Baumer, testified on behalf of Michigan exonerees in support of proposed House Bill 4536. “The most important thing is for people to get justice that’s long overdue,” Wyniemko said. According to the National Registry of Exonerations there have been 55 exonerations in Michigan since 1989. These individuals receive no support or services from the state once they are released. The proposed law would be a step in the right direction.

Mr. Wyniemko’s case illustrates glaring shortcomings in our criminal justice system—the inherit problems with eyewitness identification, jailhouse snitches, wrongful confessions, inadequate legal representation, police and prosecutorial misconduct—all present in his case. And that is why he is a tireless advocate to change the system.

(Kenneth Wyniemko’s case will be chronicled in his forthcoming book, Deliberate Injustice.)

Professor Marla Mitchell-Cichon

Professor Marla Mitchell-Cichon

The author, Marla Mitchell-Cichon, is the director of WMU-Cooley Law School’s Innocence Project.  Professor Mitchell-Cichon has extensive practice experience in criminal and poverty law. Her litigation experience includes practicing before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, the Ohio Supreme Court, and trial courts in both Ohio and Michigan. She joined WMU-Cooley Law School in July 1995 and also teaches in the Sixty Plus, Inc., Elderlaw Clinic and Professional Responsibility.

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