Almost seven years ago, a man in Detroit drove into a parking lot with a female passenger and was shot by an acquaintance. As the driver tried to pull away, a second shooter reportedly joined the first, killing the female passenger.
Last week, the Michigan Supreme Court ruled that the Court of Appeals review the case again. The Michigan Innocence Clinic — part of the University’s Law School which works to investigate and litigate cases for prisoners — has new evidence that may establish the innocence of the second suspect.
At the time of the case, Carlos Strong, the first shooter, left Detroit and was not found. Dawan Tyner, a Detroit resident, was arrested on suspicion of being the second shooter. The driver of the car testified that Tyner may have been the second shooter but admitted that he was not sure.
Tyner was sentenced to 22 to 40 years in prison for second-degree murder. Imran Syed, a staff attorney for the the clinic said the ruling was a “compromise decision.”
“It was a pretty weak identification, (the witness) said that he could have been wrong,” Syed said. “That’s pretty significant when a witness says that.”
Last spring, it was revealed that Strong made several phone calls to his mother and girlfriend both admitting his crime and saying that Tyner was in fact not at the scene of the crime at all. After Strong’s death, a suspected suicide, his mother came forward with the new evidence.
The clinic is helping Tyner appeal his case to the State Supreme Court after new evidence was found that may indicate he is innocent of the murder he was convicted of in 2007.
Strong’s mother and girlfriend testified and the case was granted a motion for a new trial, although the court of appeals reversed the decision without hearing the case. The clinic then took the case to the State Supreme Court who ordered it sent back to the Court of Appeals for review.
Syed said although Tyner did eventually get his whole story heard, cases such as these, which he labeled as a “weak conviction,” often go unchecked.
“It’s not that uncommon that someone gets convicted on the testimony of just one witness,” Syed said. “Our system has ‘proof beyond a reasonable doubt’ but I don’t think people understand in practice how little that is.”
Devon Holstad, a student attorney for the clinic, said the trends that lead to weak convictions include faulty witness identification and prosecutorial misconduct.
“They want to convict someone,” Holstad said. “So they will latch onto the first person that it may seem like there’s a chance that they committed the crime and … ignore any other evidence to the contrary.”
Syed said another common problem in wrongful convictions is poor representation for the accused. The National Legal Aid and Defender Association reported in 2011 that Michigan ranked 44th in public defense spending, with $7.35 spent per capita.
“It has a lot to do with money but it has a lot to do with things slipping under the radar,” Syed said. “In a situation where budgets are tight, criminal defendants aren’t exactly the first that get consideration.”
The clinic is one of few in the country that deals specifically with non-DNA evidence. Syed said often the only cases that are reopened are those where new DNA evidence emerges because DNA evidence is considered the most likely to change the outcome of a case.
However, most cases don’t have any DNA evidence at all and problems like faulty witness testimony are much more common, Syed said.
Brian Levy, a student attorney in the clinic, said while DNA evidence revealed the extent of wrongful convictions, there is now a much higher demand for non-DNA clinics that has not yet been met.
“There are constantly cases that we are having to put on hold and not able to investigate,” Levy said. “It’s very sad that we can’t do more than we’re doing.”
The clinic has received over 4,000 applications for case evaluations since opening in 2009 and has accepted 22. So far, the clinic has successfully concluded seven cases while the remaining 15 are still pending.
“No one likes to admit a mistake and you’re always going to get pushback,” Syed said. “It’s a long battle in every single one of these cases.”