Two of the first cases ever addressed by the Michigan Innocence Clinic saw the wrongfully convicted defendants released recently after separate 14-year legal odysseys.
Both cases involved gun killings in the Detroit area, both convictions leaned on unreliable witnesses, and both ended with commutations late last year. Yet in each case, the legal work is not quite finished.
“The Innocence Clinic is somewhat unique in the long time periods our cases span. That is the nature of post-conviction appellate litigation,” said Imran Syed, ’11, who was a student-attorney in the clinic and now serves as its co-director and a clinical assistant professor. “All of our victories in recent years have represented the culmination of years of work by dozens of students. These two cases are especially meaningful to the Innocence Clinic, though, because they go back to the very beginnings of the clinic.”
Keith Robinson’s case: A sketchy timeline and a new witness
Keith Robinson had been convicted of shooting and killing a woman in her home in Highland Park, Michigan, in 1995. A teenager who lived across the street said he saw Robinson enter the house, heard gunshots, and then saw Robinson leave. The woman’s husband and his best friend said they had left the house just minutes before.
Robinson applied to the brand-new Innocence Clinic in early 2009, and initial progress came quickly. “The teenage boy from across the street recanted, saying he didn't see Keith and only said he did because the police told him to,” Syed recalled. “Beyond that, the timing became very important. The husband and his friend said they left the house just minutes before the shooting. But we had a forensic pathologist evaluate the medical notes that EMS personnel made regarding the state of the body, and he said the woman had to have been dead for two to four hours when the paramedics examined her. The medical evidence was then supported by a new witness, who had lived in the home directly beneath the one where the shooting occurred and who was sure that he heard the shots during a specific TV show, which had aired about two and a half hours before the prosecution's purported time.”
The Innocence Clinic saw this as a “slam dunk” case of ineffective assistance of counsel, but both state and federal courts disagreed. The clinic filed two petitions for certiorari with the US Supreme Court, but they were also denied.
Donyelle Woods’ case: Help from victim’s mother and a lack of evidence
Woods had been convicted of shooting and killing a man at a gas station in Detroit in 2003. He applied to the Innocence Clinic in 2009, and Syed took it up as his first case as a student-attorney in the clinic.
“The evidence was as thin as it gets: one incentivized, wavering witness who admitted that she was ‘high as hell’ at the time she purportedly saw Donyelle do the shooting,” Syed recalled. He and fellow student Caitlin Plummer, ’11, located the witness and got her to recant her testimony. They also secured a supportive affidavit from the victim’s mother, who believed Woods was innocent.
In addition, the team recovered a wealth of police documents that led to five separate claims of violations of the Brady rule requiring prosecutors to disclose potentially exculpatory information. None of that helped much, however, as a post-conviction motion was denied in 2011, followed by further denials at the state trial court, state appellate courts, and federal court. A petition for certiorari was also denied.
Persistence pays off, but work remains
The Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office has a Conviction Integrity Unit that reviews claims of wrongful convictions, but it has a long backlog of cases. So the Innocence Clinic sought clemency for both Robinson and Woods from then-Gov. Rick Snyder, ’82, in 2018. In Woods’s case, a clemency hearing was held, but both requests were ultimately denied.
After Gov. Gretchen Whitmer replaced Snyder, the clinic reapplied for clemency for both men. Just before Christmas last year, Robinson and Woods each received the good news that they had finally won their freedom.
However, because the governor granted commutations and not pardons, both men were released on parole and continue to have the convictions on their records. The Innocence Clinic hopes to one day be able to obtain a full pardon for both men.
The Michigan Innocence Clinic is the first exclusively non-DNA innocence clinic in the country. Since its inception, the clinic has won the release of 40 men and women who had been wrongfully convicted of crimes and served anywhere from a few months to 46 years in prison.
“Our students and I have met with these two clients in prison many times, and we dreamed of the day we'd see them outside those walls. We’ve sat with them to discuss countless setbacks in litigation and had the harrowing experience of breaking news of those setbacks to their families,” Syed said. “But finally their freedom came. It meant everything to me to be present on behalf of the dozens of students who did incredible work on these cases over the years.”