Wrongful convictions cost taxpayers

April 23, 2010
| By Pete Daly |
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David Moran has met people who doubt that big mistakes are made in the American criminal justice system.

“I always find that absolutely incredible,” said Moran, a professor at the University of Michigan Law School.

“One of my favorite lines to such people is, ‘Wait a minute — do you trust the government to compute your taxes correctly? And yet you don’t think the government makes mistakes in the criminal justice system?’”

“That one produces at least a pause,” said Moran.

In January 2009, Moran and Professor Bridget McCormack launched the Michigan Innocence Clinic at the U-M Law School to litigate claims of actual innocence by prisoners in cases where DNA evidence is not available. So far, the clinic's work has resulted in the release of two men and one woman who had served a total of more than 25 years of wrongful imprisonment, which Moran estimates cost the taxpayers of Michigan about $750,000 in prison costs.

Moran is the featured speaker at the Law Day 2010 luncheon on April 30 at the University Club in Grand Rapids. It is presented by the Grand Rapids Bar Association in conjunction with Thomas M. Cooley Law School.

The Michigan Innocence Clinic is unusual, according to Moran.

“It is the first exclusively non-DNA innocence project in the United States,” he said. The Clinic participants only take cases where DNA evidence is not an issue.

Since the early 1990s, advances in biology and technology enabled the courts to begin using DNA as reliable evidence in criminal cases. In the late 1990s, states began enacting laws that allowed incarcerated prisoners to appeal their cases based on DNA evidence, and about 250 people nationwide who were imprisoned wrongfully have now been released on DNA evidence.

Moran said DNA evidence opened many eyes to the fact that “the criminal justice system is shakier than we thought. There are more wrongful convictions than previously thought.”

DNA evidence also revealed that “the same causes” for wrongful convictions “come up again and again, and what this suggests is a need to reform the criminal justice system in order to try to make it more reliable.”

Moran said that his Law Day talk will emphasize the costs of imprisoning people who are not guilty.

“Wrongful convictions cost the entire community,” said Moran. First, it costs about $30,000 a year to incarcerate a person in a Michigan prison. Then there is the injury to that individual, which is difficult to measure in dollars but can result in an expensive lawsuit against police departments.

When lawsuits are filed against the state, “all the taxpayers end up paying,” regardless of the outcome, Moran said.

A more ominous cost of wrongful convictions is the increased danger in the community when the actual perpetrator is still on the loose. In 2009, the Michigan Innocence Clinic discredited a witness who admitted he lied on the stand when Dwayne Provience of Detroit was convicted of murder almost 10 years ago. In late March, prosecutors dropped the charges. Provience had served almost 10 years of a 30-year sentence. According to the Detroit News, Moran said Provience sat in prison even after prosecutors argued in another murder case that two other individuals had murdered the person Provience was accused of killing.

Moran told the Business Journal that in Provience’s case, “the people who committed the murder remained free, and we believe committed at least two more murders. And the Detroit police believe they committed two more murders.”

One of the two suspects is now dead and the other has left Michigan, he said.

Moran said the main causes of wrongful convictions are withheld evidence, “bad eyewitness identifications,” coercive interrogations by police that produce false confessions, “bad science — a particular problem we’ve had in Michigan” — and “bad lawyering.”

“In the cases we take on in the Innocence Clinic, we’ve seen some of the very worst lawyering at the trial level that you can imagine,” said Moran. He said the clinic’s participants have also seen “a fair amount” of police and prosecutorial misconduct.

“In cases we’ve won so far, the biggest thing has been withheld evidence, combined with truly terrible defense lawyering at the trial level,” said Moran.

In the Provience case, he said, the police and prosecution “withheld reams” of exculpatory information “showing who actually committed the murder. And you had a defense lawyer who’s since been disbarred, who did no significant work at all and didn’t call witnesses that he knew about.”

Although police can be sued, witnesses — even witnesses who lie on the stand — and prosecutors have legal immunity from civil suits filed by people wrongly convicted.

Moran said he believes reforms are needed to make the criminal justice system more reliable. He said he is in favor of a bill now in the Michigan House that would provide compensation to individuals who have been wrongfully imprisoned.

“Instead of forcing people to file lawsuits that they may or may not win, it’s much better if Michigan joined the 27 other states that provide a system of compensation for people who have been wrongly convicted,” said Moran. The amount of compensation is based on the number of years the individual served in prison.

“It’s not the sort of thing that would break the bank, because we’re not talking about that many people who get to this position,” said Moran. “And it’s a lot cheaper than the state having to defend lawsuits, some of which can run into the millions” of dollars.

Moran, a native of Oklahoma, has been practicing law since receiving his law degree from the University of Michigan in 1991. He has argued cases five times before the U.S. Supreme Court, among those being Halbert v. Michigan, in which the Supreme Court struck down a Michigan law that denied appellate counsel to assist indigent criminal defendants who wished to challenge their sentences after pleading guilty.

Moran earned his B.S. in physics at the University of Michigan, a B.A., M.A. and a C.A.S. in mathematics at Cambridge University, an M.S. in theoretical physics at Cornell University, and a J.D., magna cum laude, at the Michigan Law School. He clerked for the Hon. Ralph B. Guy Jr. of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, then served for eight years as an assistant defender at the State Appellate Defender Office in Detroit. Prior to joining Michigan Law in 2008, he was an associate professor and the associate dean for academic affairs at Wayne State University Law School.

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