WMU Cooley Law’s Innocence Project frees man unjustly jailed for 42 years

contact: Cheryl Roland
| WMU News
Photo of some of the members of the WMU Cooley Innocence Project.

Members of the WMU Cooley Innocence Project, including Director Marla Mitchell-Cichon, second from left, celebrate news of the Watkins decision.

DETROIT, Mich.—A Detroit man, Ledura Watkins, was freed June 15 after serving 42 years in prison for a robbery and murder he did not commit, thanks to the efforts of the WMU Cooley Law School Innocence Project.

Based on the Innocence Project's motion for a new trial, the Wayne County Prosecutor's Office and a Wayne County Circuit Court judge agreed to vacate the judgment of conviction and dismiss all charges in the 1975 murder of a Detroit woman. Watkins was sentenced to life without parole on April 15, 1976.

According to the National Registry of Exonerations, Watkins is the longest-serving person in the United States to be determined innocent. The WMU Cooley Innocence Project filed a motion for new trial on January 19, 2017. The project is staffed by WMU Cooley Law School students and WMU undergraduates, who work under the supervision of WMU Cooley Project attorneys. Staff Attorney Eric Schroeder and Legal Intern Wisam Mikho served as lead counsel in this case.

In reaching its decision, the prosecutor's office agreed that hair comparison evidence used against Watkins does not meet today's scientific and legal standards. In 2013, the FBI disavowed testimony by FBI-trained analysts, finding they often overstated their conclusions. The Detroit lab analysts, trained by the FBI, tied Watkins to the crime scene based on a single hair. Earlier, a witness testifying against Watkins recanted his story.

"Hair comparison is not based on science; it is simply a lab analyst's subjective opinion and has no place in our criminal justice system," says Marla Mitchell-Cichon, director of the WMU Cooley Innocence Project. "This is why a statewide review of hair comparison cases is critical."

Mitchell-Cichon commended Prosecutor Kym Worthy and the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office for working with her office to resolve the case. The prosecutor's office agreed that the new scientific standards are "newly discovered" evidence.

Mitchell-Cichon also noted that over the years, Watkins never stopped fighting for his freedom. He never gave up on the belief that the truth would come out. His loved ones also got their wish; he will attend a family reunion in August.

About the WMU Cooley Law School Innocence Project

The WMU Cooley work is part of the Innocence Network, which has been credited with the release of over 350 wrongfully accused prisoners through the use of DNA testing. The WMU Cooley project has screened over 5500 cases since 2001 and is responsible for the exoneration of Kenneth Wyniemko (2003), Nathaniel Hatchett (2008) and Donya Davis (2014).

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