WMU and WMU Cooley Innocence Project garner $418,000 grant

Contact: Paula M. Davis
Photo of the WMU-Cooley Innocence project director with two of the project's exonerees.

WMU-Cooley Innocence Project Director Marla Mitchell-Cichon stands with Ken Wyniemko, left, the Project's first exoneree, and its latest exoneree Donya Davis, right.

KALAMAZOO—The Western Michigan University Cooley Law School Innocence Project, a legal clinic that seeks to exonerate people who have been wrongfully convicted of serious crimes, has received a $418,000 U.S. Department of Justice grant to continue its vital work.

The DOJ grant made to WMU supports an effort that has become emblematic of the synergy that has developed since the two schools formally affiliated in 2014. Students from both schools have been deeply involved in the work of the WMU Cooley Innocence Project. The grant is one of the largest wrongful conviction grants awarded by the Justice Department so far in 2015.

Since its inception, the WMU Cooley Innocence Project has screened more than 5,300 cases and exonerated three Michigan men who spent years in prison after being wrongly convicted of such serious crimes as sexual assault.

The project is currently investigating several dozen cases. And it recently received an influx of some 200 additional cases referred by the Innocence Project, an entity affiliated with the Cardozo School of Law in New York that will no longer be handling Michigan cases. Funding from the Justice Department grant will defray the costs associated with case review, evidence location and DNA testing where the results may show innocence of those convicted of felonies. The grant also will fund investigators, experts and the hiring of a full-time staff attorney.

The WMU Cooley Innocence Project operates as a teaching clinic that trains law school students and WMU undergraduates to screen cases, gather court opinions, review trial records, draft Freedom of Information Act requests and communicate with attorneys, police officers, forensic examiners, private investigators and witnesses.

'Promoting social justice'

"This grant allows our undergraduate students to use their education to engage in their community—and understand their social responsibility—while promoting social justice. I cannot imagine a better way for WMU students from diverse backgrounds and majors to connect their knowledge with experience," says Dr. Ashlyn Kuersten, an associate professor in WMU's Department of Gender and Women’s Studies, who is the grant's principal investigator.

Co-principal investigators on the funded work are Dr. Mark Hurwitz, WMU political science professor, and Marla Mitchell-Cichon, director of the WMU Cooley Innocence Project and a professor at the law school.

Mitchell-Cichon is thrilled with the award. "The Department of Justice funds will allow the WMU Cooley Innocence Project to continue to provide high-quality legal services to Michigan prisoners whose innocence may be proven through DNA testing," she says.

Through innocence project training, students learn about the factors common in wrongful convictions, including police and prosecutorial misconduct, plea bargaining, eyewitness misidentification, false confessions, the use of jailhouse informants, unreliable forensic evidence and ineffective assistance of counsel. 

The Innocence Project began at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University in 1992. Since that time, other innocence organizations have developed with the goal of exonerating wrongfully convicted people through DNA testing and reforming the criminal justice system to prevent future injustice. Since the organization of the first innocence project, 330 people have been exonerated through DNA testing in the United States, including 20 who were at one time sentenced to death.

About the WMU Cooley Innocence Project

The WMU Cooley Innocence Project was established by Cooley Law School Professor Emeritus Norman Fell shortly after Michigan’s post-conviction DNA testing law was enacted in 2001. The project’s dual mission is to investigate and pursue claims of factual innocence, and to train law students in best practices.

About Western Michigan University

WMU is a national research university enrolling nearly 24,000 students from across the United States and 100 other countries. Founded in 1903, it is a learner-centered, discovery-driven and globally engaged public university that offers more than 250 degree programs, including 31 at the doctoral level.

The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching classifies WMU among America's just over 200 research universities. In addition, U.S. News &World Report consistently lists WMU as one of the nation's top public universities in its annual ranking of more than 1,800 colleges and universities.

About the Western Michigan University Thomas M. Cooley Law School

Founded in 1972, the WMU Thomas M. Cooley Law School is a private, nonprofit, independent law school accredited by the American Bar Association and the Higher Learning Commission. WMU-Cooley has provided its nearly 20,000 graduates with the practical skills necessary for a seamless transition from academia to the real world. WMU-Cooley offers its Juris Doctor program, joint degree programs, and Master of Laws programs three times a year with enrollment in January, May and September. The law school has campuses across Michigan in Auburn Hills, Grand Rapids, Lansing and a campus in Tampa Bay, Florida.

For more news, arts and events, visit wmich.edu/news.

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