In 1967, many American cities were rocked by civil disturbances, including Detroit. Black people rose up against police brutality and unfair treatment.
The Kerner Commission found that among the concerns, black people complained that the courts administered justice in a discriminatory way and that "…a presumption of guilt attaches whenever a policeman testifies against a Negro."
Five decades later there are more people of color on police forces, in prosecutors' offices, and as judges. But African Americans are still being convicted of crimes they did not commit at a higher rate than white people.
Today, black people make up 13% of the nation’s population.
They make up 47% of those who are found to be wrongfully convicted.
"What those numbers show is that African Americans are more likely to be wrongfully convicted than white people are," explained David Moran with the Michigan Innocence Clinic at the University of Michigan.
People of every race are sent to prison when they didn’t do anything wrong. People of color, especially African Americans are disproportionately affected, Moran notes.
"The poorest counties have the fewest resources to provide adequate defense and those are counties where you have a lot of minorities."
Eight years in jail for a crime they did not commit
That was the case for DeShawn Reed from Wayne County.
He and his uncle, Marvin Reed, were convicted for shooting a man in the back of the head. The victim identified the Reeds as the men who shot him. Later he said he was wrong. Despite little evidence other than the victim’s testimony, the Reeds were sentenced to decades in prison.
DeShawn spent eight years in prison for something he didn’t do. He says prison was hard, but the worst moments were those when he was prepped to be transferred from one prison to another.
"Ya’ll got on nothing. Everybody is butt naked. You got to bend over in front of them, you got to spread them, you got to lift them. You know that was just so humiliating. Then you got to get shackled all the way down and, you know, that was the roughest for me," Reed recalled.
The Michigan Innocence Clinic picked up his case and that of his uncle's.
The Clinic discovered that the gun used in the shooting was found on a man who was killed while trying to steal a car. Witnesses recall seeing that man near the shooting that was blamed on the Reeds. After more than eight years in prison, the Reeds were released.
The judicial system's failings
So, how does the justice system get this wrong?
Brett DeGroff is an Assistant Defender with the State Appellate Defender Office. He represents indigent criminal defendants.
"There are innocent people in prison because the criminal justice system is not an infallible machine. It's just a group of people trying to do their best and just like the people who make up the system, the system itself is not perfect. People make mistakes and when people make mistakes in our criminal justice system, that means innocent people go to jail," DeGroff said.
Since innocence clinics at law schools started investigating suspect cases across the nation a few decades ago, about 1,900 people have been exonerated.
Many of them have a few things in common.
"I think the people going to prison that are actually innocent are disproportionately poor. They’re disproportionately living in poor and minority communities that are over-policed in ways that suburban and wealthier communities are not. And the people that are getting convicted happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, maybe. The scary thing is once you drill deeper, it could be anybody from those communities," DeGroff said.
There are several reasons, according to the innocence clinics:
- Eyewitness misidentification is the biggest problem. Studies consistently show people are much better at facial recognition of strangers of their own race than people of a different race.
- "Junk science" is another reason. A lot of the forensic testing methods are applied with little or no scientific validation.
- False confessions are not uncommon.
- Government misconduct which might be as simple as investigators ignoring a piece of evidence that doesn’t fit the case, but if turned over to a defense lawyer, it might prove innocence.
- Snitches sometimes give testimony against someone in exchange for some kind of incentive. That’s not always revealed to the jury.
- And finally… bad defense lawyering.
While every county in the state has a prosecutor's office, few have equally funded public defender offices.
Private attorneys are often paid a flat fee and given little incentive to investigate, call witnesses, or thoroughly prepare for a trial. Many don’t meet their clients until the day of the trial. Often they encourage their clients to plead guilty to lesser charges and even the innocent feel trapped in these "meet and plead" sessions.
Michigan is trying to tackle that last issue of bad defense lawyering.
"The justice system works best when you have three people really on their game, that's the judge, the prosecutor, and the defense lawyer. If one of these three people didn’t really come to play, we’re not sure justice is the final result," said Judge Tom Boyd from the 55th District in Ingham County.
He’s a member of the Michigan Indigent Defense Commission which is working to make sure every defendant has a fair day in court.
The Commission is proposing better standards for the entire state. Proposed standards include better training for defense lawyers, time and private space for attorneys to meet with their clients, requiring attorneys to investigate the case, and making sure a defendant has a lawyer at an arraignment and pre-trial proceedings.
"We'll know when these initial standards work when the defendants have more trials and more motions and have their case heard in a true fact-based way. It would be hard to make an argument that the system today provides defendants with the type of counsel which is guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment of the United States Constitution. Again, you know, the system works best when everybody's on their game," Boyd added.
The initial standards recommended by the Michigan Indigent Defense Commission are considered a first step. Boyd says it's clear more needs to be done.
Urban courts are swamped with cases
As noted above, a proper defense is not the only problem.
David Moran with the Michigan Innocence Clinic says many police departments, prosecutor’s offices, and the courts have heavy caseloads which make short cuts tempting.
"It's because of these systemic issues. It's because of under resources for defense counsel in urban courts especially where, frankly, nobody has all the resources. The prosecutor's office doesn't have all the resources and the police department doesn't have the resources to do an adequate investigation. So, it's not just the defense. It's these counties that are under-funded, typically places like Flint, Detroit, and, Benton Harbor where there are large minority populations. So, there's a systemic problem that leads to wrongful conditions," Moran said.
If you are wrongfully convicted and lucky enough for one of the innocence clinics to pick up your case, it still takes years to resolve.
If you get out of prison, there's nothing beyond freedom.
Those years are lost.
Often the wrongfully convicted have no money. It's hard to get a job because their record of conviction is not expunged immediately after release. It can take a few years.
Brett DeGroff with the State Appellate Defender Office says those who did commit a crime and then are released have more going for them.
"If you get released from prison on parole, there's a lot of systems in place to ensure that you're going to succeed. We have a lot invested in that as a community. But, I think because people think of wrongful convictions as a phenomenon that doesn't happen often, we don't have any of those services set up for folks who didn't do anything wrong and went to prison anyway," DeGroff said.
Should the state pay for its mistakes
State Senator Steve Bieda has introduced legislation every session since he was first elected to the Legislature in 2003. He’s pushing to change how we treat the wrongfully convicted.
"So, they're innocent of a crime; they come out; they're treated worse than somebody who's actually guilty of a crime," Bieda said.
His plan is to offer some of that same help that those on parole get. He also wants people who were sent to prison for crimes they did not commit to be reimbursed for each year they were locked up.
"The goal of this isn't to make anybody rich. Frankly, $50,000 a year is actually kind of a small number, but it is consistent with what at least eight other states have as well as the federal government," Bieda explained.
Even with help back into society and reimbursement, the innocent who do time in prison lose a lot.
For DeShawn Reed, it's an uneasiness that haunts him.
Even though he's been out of prison for years now, he is wary. No matter where he's at, he wants to make sure it's documented somehow. If there's a sign-in registry, he signs in and puts down the date and time. He wants to make sure that everywhere he goes he is seen, that it's on the record.
"Wherever I'm at, I'm always looking for the camera, I always want to be on camera because there ain't no telling what somebody else is going to say that I did. I always want to be on camera. Everywhere I go I want to make sure I'm on camera," Reed said.
Tienail Reed sat with his brother, DeShawn, as he was interviewed.
He worked to find proof that his brother and his uncle did not do the crime for which they went to prison. He says since he spent time behind bars, DeShawn has changed.
"Before, he was more silly, I mean, he was more like a jokester. You know, that got taken away," he said.
His brother who was wrongfully convicted added, "Yeah. Yeah. I wish I had that, still had that, you know. Silly like everything. I’m just so uptight now. You know what I’m saying? I was more happy and funny, laughing and I’m just more uptight now. You know what I’m saying?" he asked.
Most of us don’t know.
It’s hard to imagine going to prison when you know you’re innocent. But, it still happens. It’s more likely to happen if you’re poor and a person of color.
Support for the Detroit Journalism Cooperative on Michigan Radio comes from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Renaissance Journalism's Michigan Reporting Initiative, the Ford Foundation and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.