Every year in the United States, over 10,000 people are falsely accused of crimes they didn’t commit. Some of these innocent people will eventually be found not-guilty on their own, but most of them will go to prison regardless of their innocence.
The Innocence Network is a worldwide — though primarily in the United States — coalition of sister networks, each working to exonerate some of these innocent citizens. The organization began in the 1990’s when new DNA testing methods sprung up. In turn, several similar organizations around the world became dedicated to using this new technology for proving innocence.
Fortunately, for students at Western Michigan University, the opportunity is available on campus through the Wrongful Conviction Program, affiliated with WMU’s Cooley Law School Innocence Project.
WMU’s program is special in that it is the only one to include undergraduate students in the project. Most of the programs are only open to law students, Kate Marshall, a WMU junior said.
Undergraduate students are given the letters and cases of falsely accused prisoners in Michigan, which they then review and look for evidence of misconduct or DNA that can be retested. Because of the new methods of DNA testing that have sprung up in the last two decades, DNA is what students tend to focus on while reviewing their cases, students said.
From taking part in the class, students cite the project as a tremendous opportunity to gain insight into criminal law and gain experience in the field.
“I think you gain a better understanding of just how many people are wrongfully convicted and what a serious issue this really is,” Jonathan Nelson, senior, said.
While it’s easy not to think about how many people are wrongfully accused, and to simply trust the system to uphold justice without assistance, the numbers speak for themselves.
Of the 10,000 people wrongfully convicted, the Innocence Network is credited with the release of over 329 of these wrongfully convicted prisoners. WMU’s Cooley Innocence Project is credited with exonerating three of those individuals. While this could be seen as an impressive feat, there’s a long way to go, and students at WMU are dedicated to the goal of exonerating as many as possible.
“You hear ‘you get to change the world’ and that’s thrown around a lot. This is actually a program where there’s someone in jail that shouldn’t be there and you just saved the rest of their life,” senior Ryan Less said.
The greatest factor in wrongful convictions is eyewitness misidentification, which applies in 72 percent of all wrongful conviction cases — followed by false confession, false forensic evidence and perjury, according to the Wrongful Conviction Project’s website.
Though the number of falsely accused is still high, students here at WMU seem to agree that it's about each case on an individual level.
"Even if you just get one right, per year, that's a huge difference. Maybe that will inspire change on a political level too," Less said.
As of Sept. 2015, the Cooley Innocence Project received a grant of over $400,000 from the Department of Justice to continue its work. In addition, community members are always encouraged to support the project by sponsoring students — allowing them to investigate the claims of innocence — or by donating to recently exonerated individuals now struggling for food and shelter; more information about supporting the program can be found online via the Wrongful Conviction Program's web page.
“I think it should expand, and this [WMU’s program] is a good test pilot to see if they can use it in other universities. Students are eager to help and learn and have that experience,” Marshall said.
In addition to Marshall, other participating students seem optimistic about the program’s future. All of them eagerly hope that the Wrongful Conviction Program will be able to exonerate many more innocent prisoners and that the program, in general, will expand. An excellent goal, considering the amount of good the project has already achieved, and the amount that is sure to continue.
For more information about the program and Cooley Law School go to: www.cooley.edu.