Guilty people go to prison, and innocent people don’t. What seems like the most elementary rule of the criminal justice system is being called into question in the case of Lorinda Swain. Swain — convicted of sexually abusing her adopted son in 2002 — currently has her case pending before the Michigan Supreme Court. The court’s initial decision not to hear the case risks compromising the values of the justice system and sets a dangerous precedent in which innocent people are incarcerated and unable to prove their innocence. The Michigan Supreme Court should re-examine the case and give Swain the opportunity to clear her name.
In 2002, Swain was sentenced to 25 to 50 years in prison for abusing her adopted son, according to a Jan. 23 Detroit Free Press article. Her son — who testified against her at the time — later admitted to fabricating the accusations. She has recently been working with attorneys from the University Law School’s Innocence Clinic who have presented witnesses who also refute the charges. After reviewing the evidence, Calhoun County Circuit Judge Conrad Sind agreed to grant Swain a new trial and released her on bond in 2009. The prosecution appealed this decision, which was reversed by the Michigan Court of Appeals. The case was then taken to the Michigan Supreme Court, which declined to hear it in a 4-3 vote. Swain has asked them to reconsider that decision.
The decision made by the Court of Appeals, which the Michigan Supreme Court has so far chosen not to correct, reflects a very narrow-minded interpretation of the law. The rationale behind not hearing the case is that the evidence now presented isn’t new because Swain’s previous lawyers were aware of it, and chose not to use it or even speak to the witnesses involved. And while it’s true that her former lawyers were aware of the existence of these witnesses, it’s also true that they were found to be constitutionally ineffective in their handling of the case. That, in and of itself, is grounds for a new trial, and the court’s inability to recognize that could send a likely innocent woman back to prison.
The specifics of Swain’s case are troubling, but it also points to many concerning flaws about the criminal justice system. With advances in technology and DNA evidence, people once proven guilty are now being found innocent with new, concrete evidence. It’s horrific to imagine innocent people spending years in jail for a crime they didn’t commit, but it does happen. Regardless of the need for finality of judgments, there should always be the opportunity for innocent prisoners to prove their innocence in court.
The prosecutors appealed the decision to grant Swain a new trial, arguing that allowing her to be heard in court years after her conviction would open the floodgates of appeals by prisoners. But even if that did happen, if any prisoner can present the kind of evidence that Swain has, they should have their case reconsidered. To not pursue justice because of possible inconveniences for the court system is an irresponsible position that compromises the right to a fair trial that all people are constitutionally guaranteed.
The Michigan Supreme Court needs to give Swain the opportunity to have the new evidence heard in court both to prove her innocence and to set a precedent of always allowing the justice system to come to a just conclusion in all cases.