Members of the University Law School’s Innocence Clinic argued their latest case before the Michigan Court of Appeals in Lansing yesterday, the next step after the prosecution appealed the Clinic’s trial court win in the case of Lorinda Swain.
Swain was originally convicted in 2002 of committing an incestuous sex crime for allegedly performing oral sex on her teenage son Ronnie.
Ronnie’s testimony was the only piece of evidence brought against Swain during the initial trial, and Swain’s attorneys failed to present credible witnesses to testify for her innocence.
Swain was found guilty of the crime, but immediately following Swain’s imprisonment, Ronnie recanted his testimony and tried tirelessly to clear her record.
University Law students Erin Opperman, Caitlin Plummer and Imran Syed — who is also a columnist for The Michigan Daily — said the Clinic has been investigating Swain’s case since the spring of 2009 when Swain wrote to the clinic requesting their assistance.
The clinic decided to move forward with the case after determining that Swain was both innocent and that her conviction could be overturned.
Innocence Clinic workers tracked down potential witnesses to testify on behalf of Swain, and found two new sources for her defense. They were able to contact Tanya Winterburn, Ronnie’s bus driver for a number of years, and William Risk, an older boy living in the neighborhood at the time of the alleged incident.
Both Winterburn and Risk provided testimonies that contradicted Ronnie’s original testimony. As a result, in the summer of 2009, Judge Conrad Sindt ordered a new hearing for Swain, and eventually the Innocence Clinic was successful in getting Swain’s conviction thrown out and granted her a new trial.
But Swain’s road to freedom became obstructed later in 2009 when the prosecution was given permission to appeal the judge’s decision.
“That was a surprise,” Syed said.
As part of the appeal, each side was given 30-minutes to present their argument in front of three judges yesterday. The judges will decide in the coming months whether to uphold the ruling or reinstate the conviction.
Because Swain’s original attorney was ruled to be “constitutionally ineffective,” her attorneys from the Innocence Clinic were able to provide new evidence to judges to have her case overturned, Plummer said.
However, Syed said the definition of new evidence has not been agreed upon.
“Exactly what new evidence means was a big question for the court today,” Syed said. “Judges aren’t so sure — sometimes they agree, sometimes they don’t.”
In court yesterday, prosecutors stressed that Winterburn’s and Risk’s testimonies did not qualify as “new evidence,” and alleged that Judge Sindt’s decision was incorrect. The prosecution added that even if the testimonies were classified as new evidence, they were negligible pieces of evidence.
Plummer explained that prosecuting attorneys “don’t want second guessing,” of previous convictions.
But with the growing ability to find new evidence through processes like DNA testing, previously closed cases are being reexamined, Syed explained.
“The prosecution is very concerned that if these types of cases keep getting through, then it might open the flood gates and everyone would get to file new motions,” Syed said.
Syed and Plummer explained that while Swain has had a difficult road so far, she is optimistic about the outcome of the appeal.
“I think she just has a genuine feeling that in the end, the right thing will happen,” Plummer said, adding that Swain has found work near her home and has a lot of support from her community.
“She seems to be doing well,” Plummer said.
Though Innocence Clinic members say they are confident in their arguments and Swain’s innocence, they admitted they are not completely sure they will be able to win the case.
“The judges were interested in the right questions, which is good,” Syed said. “But we really can’t know what they’re thinking or where they’re going to go with it, so we’re hoping for the best.”