A surprise objection

Last week, the Michigan House of Representatives judiciary committee took up for the first in what certainly will be many discussions on a statewide funding and oversight structure for indigent defense.

Among the supporters were a host of nonprofit advocacy groups, the NAACP, Ruth Lloyd-Harlin who is the sister of Michigan’s first DNA exoneree Eddie Joe Lloyd. Retired judges and law school deans supported the proposed bill.

The sole objection was a surprise — William J. Winters III, president of the Wayne County Criminal Defense Bar Association, who wrote a letter to the committee expressing his views (not those of the association) and concerns over the possible politicization of indigent defense. Thinking that the state-funded system would be free of undue political preference is a “hopeless illusion,” Winters wrote, adding that no legislation can eliminate the distinctly human traits of nepotism, cronyism and favoritism.

Though he doesn’t claim that the system is adequately funded as it is now, Winters wrote that he doesn’t see how statewide funding will make the situation any better.

The proposal could be taken far more seriously if its proponents summoned the political courage to fund this new system with an increased tax on legal products and services which directly and disproportionately contribute to crime: the beer, wine and spirits industry and casino ‘gaming’ interests. These purveyors of misery and despair have enjoyed a tax haven in our state for far too long. A fair and reasonable tax is overdue, but these competing interest groups are apparently off-limits because they are too powerful to take on. Instead, proponents take the easy way out: they want defendants, most of whom are desperately poor, to fund the system.

Winters addresses the pink elephant in the room, a simple reality that few want to discuss: Michigan’s pool of money is shrinking. Within those limits, what legislator would put an unpopular population — those charged with crimes, some of whom are (gasp) guilty — over the interests of populations to which we pay plenty of lip service — in particular, school children? We can’t, or won’t, even adequately fund our schools if it means paying higher taxes. Is it possible that we’ll have the political stones to adequately fund indigent defense?

Read Winters’s entire letter here.

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Two Michigan cases among Innocence Project’s 2009 success stories

Twenty-seven people, including two Michigan men, were exonerated by organizations in the Innocence Network this year after serving a combined 421 years in prison for crimes they did not commit, according to an Innocence Project report.

The report contains an account of Deshawn Reed and his uncle, Marvin Reed, who were exonerated on July 31 after eight years in prison with help from the University of Michigan Innocence Clinic.

The Reeds were convicted of a shooting that left the victim paralyzed based on the victim’s eyewitness testimony that the Reeds shot at him from a car. Other eyewitnesses, however, said the shots came from elsewhere and one eyewitness identified the shooter as Tyrone Allen. The Reeds presented half a dozen alibi witnesses.

Post-conviction, evidence tied the gun used in the shooting to Allen, who had been killed while committing a carjacking, according to the report. Allen’s girlfriend testified that he confessed to the shooting for which the Reeds were convicted.

The victim himself later testified that he never actually saw where the shots came from, and that he implicated the Reeds after family and friends suggested the Reeds were responsible.

U-M innocence project helps win convicted murderer a new trial

“A 36-year-old man, jailed for the past eight years for a murder he says he did not commit, has been granted a new trial by a Wayne Circuit Court judge this morning and could be home with his family as early as tonight,” according to a story in The Detroit News.

“Dwayne Provience has been in prison since 2001, despite his consistent claims of innocence. Judge Timothy Kenny ordered a new trial, citing the prosecution’s use of a less-than-credible witness.

“The Innocence Project at the University of Michigan — a litigation group that seeks to overturn incorrect convictions — took up the case after being contacted by Provience. For his family, Tuesday’s court decision was a case of the holidays coming early.”