ANN ARBOR, Mich. After 14 months of poring over documents, conducting long interviews and spending late nights debating, the University of Michigan Law School?s Innocence Clinic has achieved what it set out to do: Convince a judge to give two prisoners a new trial.
Marvin Reed and his nephew Deshawn have spent nearly a decade in prison cells for assault with intent to commit murder in a 2000 shooting. But Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Patricia Fresard ruled July 10 that they will get a trial, which could overturn their convictions.
The shooting victim, Shannon Gholston, recanting his trial testimony and other alleged errors brought to light during the latest hearings suggested that ?the defendants would have had a reasonably likely chance for an acquittal,? Fresard wrote in her ruling. Clinic officials will seek a bond to have their clients released and request that all charges be dismissed.
The Innocence Clinic represents inmates like the Reeds that they believe to have been wrongfully convicted in cases where biological evidence like DNA does not exist. Other innocence clinics throughout the country specialize in DNA exonerations.
The ruling gives the clinic?s first victory since it opened in January. Law student Zoe Levine described the experience as incredible when she spoke to Deshawn Reed on the telephone after he heard the news.
?I have always had an acute awareness of the enormous stakes in this case, but hearing
Deshawn cry with joy and relief at the result was overwhelming,? Levine said. ?He
has lost so much time.?
While the case developed Levine?s legal knowledge and skills, she also learned ?what it means to advocate zealously on someone's behalf, because so much is at stake.?
Bridget McCormack, associate dean of clinical affairs and clinic-co-director with David Moran, said DNA exonerations indicate that ?the rate of wrongful conviction is not insignificant, and we know what goes wrong to cause these injustices.?
?Bad lawyering is almost always a factor and Michigan?s assigned counsel system is among the nation?s worst, so there are thousands of wrongfully convicted prisoners in Michigan,? McCormack said.
The Innocence Clinic is one of 14 clinics at the Law School, enabling students to move beyond the theory of the classroom into the real-world practice of law.
Michigan Court Rules allow students to investigate and litigate cases on behalf of clients, always under the supervision of faculty. They interview witnesses, negotiate with opposing counsel, make legal arguments before judges, and handle contested hearings. Students also develop expertise in client counseling, discovery, negotiation and mediation, legal writing, and trial skills.
The law students discuss and debate potential cases, getting feedback from classmates, McCormack and Moran. It?s not uncommon for students to spend countless hours reviewing court transcripts, poring over files and documents and contacting witnesses. Some of their work is done in a small office near the clinic office on the 10th floor of the Law School?s Legal Research building.
?(Work at the clinic) has really reinvigorated me as a law student and helped focus my interests relative to the law,? said Judd Grutman, a second-year law student from Los Angeles. ?This has been the most rewarding work I have ever done and it makes me tick.?
Grutman said the cases can be challenging, especially when the students and co-directors are confident alternate suspects were involved. In the cases he?s handled, Grutman says he carefully speaks to witnesses ?as not to show our cards too much in pointing fingers or making it look like we are going after the people we think actually did it.?
?We have to make sure that we present ourselves as merely helping our client,? he explained. ?We do not want people to believe that we are trying to pin the crime on others. This is also important for our own safety, in general, as it is clear that some acquaintances or culprits are still active and feared by the community.?
Katie Brooks, a second-year law student from Ypsilanti, Mich., knows the number of wrongly convicted prisoners is growing based on letters and questionnaires sent to the clinic.
Since last summer, the clinic has received more than 3,000 letters from convicted Michigan prisoners and their family members. Each inmate must complete a 19-page questionnaire to be considered by the clinic.
Law students carefully review the questionnaires and new cases every two weeks, working in groups of two. ?For some cases, there is nothing we can do,? Brooks said.
Students say they must be selective with cases.
?This is not because we are cynics and do not believe the prospective clients,? Grutman said, ?rather we make sure as a class that we can make traction with the leads we have, that these issues are still ripe (in that we can actually litigate them) and that the client is, in fact, innocent.?
Deshawn Reed, 33, and his uncle Marvin Reed, 42, both of Ecorse, Mich., were convicted and sentenced to 20 years in prison for the crime.
The shooting victim, who is paralyzed, identified the Reeds as being involved in the incident, but recanted his testimony. No evidence tied the Reeds to shooting, according to the clinic. Key evidence, including the police finding the gun in possession of another man identified by witnesses as the real shooter, was not presented by the defense at trial.
?The new evidence in this case amounts to proof beyond any reasonable doubt not only that Marvin and Deshawn Reed are completely innocent but that the real shooter was Tyrone Allen,? Moran said. ?Every day that the Reeds spend in prison is an affront to basic principles of justice and decency. They should be given new trials and released immediately.?
Allen had been shot and killed by Detroit police before the Reeds? trial in 2001.
In the last eight years, state courts have twice denied the Reeds? attempts to overturn the verdicts.
Slideshow of Innocence Clinic case