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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More trouble brewing in Detroit with evidence processing?

The Detroit Free Press reports that Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy wants an outside probe of why thousands of “rape kits” that could contain evidence of sexual assaults were found stacked up in a Detroit Police Department evidence storage facility. From The Freep:

In a Sept. 8 letter to Police Chief Warren Evans, Worthy said there may be more than 10,000 so-called rape kits and hundreds of other pieces of evidence warehoused, unanalyzed, in a police “overflow property room.” The situation raises fears that cases could be affected if the evidence is challenged in court, Worthy said.

Police spokesman John Roach said Monday that Evans has an internal investigation under way, and that so far, police have found no mishandling of evidence and no cases that have been tainted. Roach also said the evidence is secure. …

The police crime lab was shut down a year ago because of an extraordinarily high error rate in firearms cases.

William Winters III, president of the Wayne County Criminal Defense Bar Association, said it may be time for federal authorities to look into the lab and the handling of evidence.