It’s a sad reality that the justice system isn’t perfect. One example is the case of Dwayne Province, a Michigan man who served eight years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit. But thanks to the involvement of the University Law School’s newly formed Innocence Clinic, Province is being released. This success shows the importance of the Innocence Clinic, a group that works to exonerate wrongfully convicted prisoners, and also highlights a deeper problem within Michigan’s justice system. Wrongfully convicted prisoners shouldn’t have to depend on law student activists to compensate for the mistakes of the justice system. Instead, the state must reform its system of public defense and appeals.
Province was convicted in 2001 of the murder of Rene Hunter. Province only become a suspect after Larry Wiley, a key witness for the prosecution, claimed that Province and his brother were responsible for the murder. But Wiley recanted his testimony after being diagnosed with cancer earlier this year. In response, Province contacted the Innocence Clinic to help him clear his name. After working on the case for nine months, the Innocence Clinic proved Province’s innocence, using Wiley’s perjured testimony as proof and uncovering police memos that incriminated a gang in the murder.
The Innocence Clinic is a great learning tool for law students, but it’s also doing important work to help wrongfully convicted people. Resources like the Innocence Clinic fulfill a vital role in fixing the mistakes of the justice system. The Innocence Clinic has the potential to correct those mistakes that get lost in the bureaucracy of the state’s bloated justice system. It is an invaluable resource for prisoners who know they’ve been wrongly convicted but can’t make their case through conventional channels.
But the Innocence Clinic can only do so much, and it’s unfair and unrealistic to expect organizations like this one to clean up the system’s messes. Every individual convicted of a crime deserves an exceptional legal support staff. Michigan is clearly in need of reforms to its justice system so that innocence and guilt can be fairly determined in every case.
One of Michigan’s principal problems is that its justice system suffers from inadequate support for public defense. Public defenders — lawyers appointed by the state to defendants who can’t afford their own attorney — are overworked and underpaid, increasing the number of mistakes made. In Detroit, public defenders haven’t been given raises in 30 years, so many take more cases than they can handle for the money. And funding for public defense in Michigan is damagingly low, so sometimes the necessary research to prove a defendant’s innocence isn’t available. To make matters worse, Michigan’s court system is excessively restrictive and rarely grants appeals.
These problems need to be addressed if the state is going to reduce its number of wrongful convictions — and eliminating wrongful convictions should be the goal of every justice system. People’s lives hang in the balance. It is a travesty of justice when some people are incarcerated for years for crimes they didn’t commit because of the barriers within the system to proving innocence after a false conviction.
Dwayne Province was fortunate that new evidence came to light and that the Innocence Clinic was there to help him. But all wrongfully convicted prisoners deserve the same right to fight their convictions and prove their innocence.