Releases from bad convictions hit record level

Ken Wyniemko spent nine years in prison before DNA proved he wasn't a rapist. He's been free since 2003, but he says he's still haunted by the horrors of penitentiary life.

"When I was locked up, I saw people get stabbed to death; I've seen people get raped; I've seen guards get stabbed," said Wyniemko, 67. "Those visions have gone away a little bit, but there are times when I get flashbacks. I have times where I can't sleep at night and the images keep popping up in my head."

When Wyniemko's conviction was overturned in 2003, exonerations were relatively rare. That's changed, thanks to several factors including advances in forensic science, and what innocence advocates say is a new willingness by police and prosecutors to take a second look at potentially tainted cases.

Only three Michigan prisoners were exonerated in 2003, and there had been only 15 others since 1991. Since then, there have been 72 exonerations in the state, including a record 14 last year, according to the National Registry of Exonerations.

So far this year, four Michigan prisoners have been exonerated, and at least three others were granted new trials. Since Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy formed the Conviction Integrity Unit in November to look at possible wrongful convictions, two people have been exonerated, while two others were granted new trials.

University of Michigan law professor David Moran, who heads the school's Innocence Clinic, said the recent uptick in Michigan exoneration cases stems in large part from problems in the Detroit Police Department that prompted a federal consent decree in 2003; and issues with the Detroit Police Crime Lab, which was shut down in 2008 because of rampant mismanagement and, some say, corruption.

Detroit officials agreed to the federal monitoring to avoid a massive civil rights lawsuit alleging suspects and witnesses were subjected to excessive force, false arrests, illegal detentions and unconstitutional conditions of confinement.

The Crime Lab was shuttered after Michigan State Police released a scathing audit in which they found a 10 percent error rate. The audit's authors expressed concern that tainted evidence may have led to wrongful convictions - which is exactly what happened, Moran said.

"For many years, DPD was out of control," Moran said. "It's well-documented how they were taking unconstitutional shortcuts on a regular basis. The crime lab was run by corrupt people, and who knows how many innocent people were sent to prison because of them? A lot of these cases are just now starting to come to light; that's why we're seeing so many."

Since the Detroit crime lab closed, the Michigan State Police lab has handled Detroit's forensic work; while the Detroit Police Department in 2014 was deemed to be in compliance with federal edicts and was released from the consent decree.

Detroit police Chief James Craig said the culture that once permeated the department has changed.

"It's no secret that there were some things that went on in the department that led us into a consent judgment," Craig said. "One of the main things I focused on in my first year was management accountability. I knew that was the path to getting out of the consent decree, because that's how they did it in Los Angeles (where Craig spent 28 years as a cop).

"The manner in which we conducted investigations was concerning to me coming in the door," Craig said. "I put new leadership in, and things started to change. I don't want to criticize all the investigators who were here then, because many of them were and are great at their jobs. But we have raised the overall level of professionalism."

Craig last year agreed to work with UM's Innocence Clinic to help investigate cases that may have resulted in wrongful convictions. He said detectives have re-investigated a few cases, although he said nothing concrete has yet been uncovered.

Of the 89 Michigan cases listed on the National Registry of Exonerations, 42 were from Wayne County, and almost all of those are from Detroit.

Bill Proctor, a former police officer and Detroit television news reporter whose agency, Proving Innocence, advocates for wrongfully convicted prisoners, said the flood of Wayne County cases is the result of "a horrific history that's now catching up in the present."

"First of all, most of the crime in Michigan happens in Wayne County and Detroit," he said. "This taxes the criminal justice system, and that leads to abuses because there's pressure to solve these cases and get convictions.

"In many instances, it was the abuse of prisoners that led to confessions," Proctor said. "The police were beating people, not letting them use the bathroom, and locking them in dark closets until they confessed - whether they did the crime or not."

According to the New York-based Innocence Project, about 30 percent of people who were exonerated by DNA evidence had made a false confession.