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Working to free the innocent

Kelle Lynn • Jul 21, 2015 at 11:41 AM

"To close our eyes and say this is not a problem is wrong," said Ottawa County Circuit Judge Jon Hulsing, who joined the Eyewitness Identification Task Force at its inception in January.

The task force was formed by the Michigan State Bar. It consists of a diverse group of judges, criminal defense and prosecuting attorneys, law enforcement officers, and members of the Michigan Innocence Clinic. The 20-member panel meets once every six weeks to ensure proper training is being administered.

Researchers have found that a combination of errors result in wrongful convictions — perjury by a witness, negligence by criminal justice officials, coerced confessions, over-zealous officers and prosecutors, and frame jobs. The most important factor in leading to wrongful convictions, experts say, is eyewitness misidentification.

The task force aims to reduce the number of erroneous identifications, while ensuring good identifications. A few of the questions they try to address are: How can we make sure identification procedures produce reliable results? Do courtroom rules need to be changed? Is this a training issue? Are there jury issues?

"The eyewitness identification is a very important piece of the justice system," Hulsing said. "A person can be wrong, but positive they are right."

Experts say there may be as many as 10,000 wrongful convictions a year across the country. The use of DNA — which consists of body tissue, fluid and blood — has been useful in exonerating nearly 300 wrongfully convicted men and women nationwide since 1989.

Sometimes there is no DNA evidence.

That's where the Michigan Innocence Clinic comes into the picture. It was founded in 2008 by Bridget McCormack, a law professor at the University of Michigan. She started the clinic to address the difficult issue of wrongful convictions in cases without DNA evidence. It is the first exclusive non-DNA innocence clinic in the country.

To read more of this story, see Saturday’s print or e-edition of the Grand Haven Tribune.

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