WAYNE COUNTY, Mich. – A new Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office unit is taking a second look at the convictions obtained by prosecutors and has already freed four people from prison.
The Wayne County Conviction Integrity Unit launched in January. It is the only CIU of its kind in the state, and there are only a few scattered across the country.
“It is a unit that I actually would have liked to have five years ago. It took a lot of lobbying and a lot of planning and a lot of everything to get the commission and the CEO to give us the funding for it. I don’t think any prosecutor’s office should be afraid to review their work that they have done,” said Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy.
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The CIU investigates claims of innocence to determine whether there is clear evidence showing the defendant was not the person who committed the crime. The cases the CIU investigates have already been concluded, either by a guilty plea or a trial by judge or jury.
“I’m sure there are offices across the country that knowingly knew they were convicting the wrong person. That’s not what I’m talking about [in Wayne County], and I hope that’s never happened here in Wayne County, and certainly not under my watch that we would knowingly do that. That would be a horrible set of circumstances,” Worthy said.
The director of the CIU is Valerie Newman.
“This is a dream job for someone like me who’s spent their entire career working to improve the criminal justice system. It’s just an opportunity every day to make the system better, to improve things, to help create awareness around problems within the criminal justice system,” Newman said.
Newman is known as a tough defense attorney, often going head-to-head with Wayne County prosecutors.
“It was a little odd to apply to work in an office where I had so many cases that we had sort of, what I thought was, sort of battling against the system, but it was also, 'What better way to improve the system?' This is the largest county. They handle almost 50 percent of the serious criminal cases for the entire state of Michigan,” Newman said.
The CIU already has more than 600 cases to investigate, and the unit reinvestigates every aspect of a case.
“These cases are just incredibly intensive in terms of the amount of work it takes to reinvestigate a case, especially if it’s an older case. Just finding people and finding the files can take a long time. I like to see the homicide files from the Detroit Police Department. I want to read every single piece of paper in that file, and know what came in, what were the police working off of, and where did it follow. It’s a slow process, and I think for me, that might be the most frustrating part of this,” Newman said.
Newman is tackling hundreds of cases with three lawyers and one investigator on staff. They are planning to hire more staff members soon.
“It’s going to be hard to ever have enough resources when you’re talking about 600 cases since January, and letters coming in every single day in terms of people making claims, but we certainly need more investigative help, more lawyers to do the work so I’d like to not have a big backlog. That’s No. 1 because I understand the stress that it causes to people,” said Newman.
Newman and her small team aim to respond to every innocence claim that comes to their office.
“I try to put myself in someone else’s shoes. If someone writes a letter, I’m going to make sure they get a response. If someone calls us, I want to make sure they get a timely response. I want to make sure people know they’re being heard, they’re being listened to,” said Newman.
So far, the CIU has freed four people from prison: Aaron Salter, Mubarez Ahmed, Richard Phillips and Darrell Siggers. The four of them combined have served more than a century in prison.
“These are horrendous consequences when you’re depriving someone of their liberty, but it’s happened so all we can do is work to try and rectify what’s happened, and then also try to put the pieces in place so that it doesn’t happen in the future,” Newman said.
Siggers was convicted of first-degree murder in 1984, and was sentenced to life in prison. Siggers was freed after spending 34 years behind bars.
“Darrell Siggers got a raw deal because of fake bullet evidence,” said Wolf Mueller, a prominent attorney working with several wrongly convicted clients.
The CIU worked on Siggers' case and found flawed witness testimony and a botched ballistics report.
“Nobody ever looked at cases involving ballistics from the 1990s or 2000s, and that’s where a lot of these exonerations are now coming, from a relook at the science, a fresh look to see were corners cut by police officers (or) was it simply bad lawyering by the defense,” Mueller said.
Though Siggers is now free, he vividly remembers the decades he lost in prison.
“It was one of the most arduous journeys of my life. My first day there, I’ll never forget it. The noise was stifling. You see people hollering, and they’re throwing stuff, and I knew in my mind that I cannot do this for the rest of my life,” Siggers said.
He kept fighting for his freedom and had a total of 16 lawyers. He started studying his case on his own before the CIU stepped in.
“I began to read. I began to study. The more I read, the more I wanted to read. Once you get convicted, you’re presumed guilty so to reverse that, you have to come up with some extraordinary, newly discovered evidence that unequivocally, categorically proves that you’re either innocent or wrongfully convicted,” said Siggers.
Siggers lost a lot of time behind bars, and his old neighborhood is now unrecognizable.
“When I first got out, I came back here. I wanted to see my old neighborhood. It’s not the way I remember it; 34 years, some of the homes are dilapidated, and you see blight. It just reminds me how much time has passed,” Siggers said.
It’s also a reminder of how much he has lost. His daughter, Tanisha, died in her sleep from a seizure one month after his release.
“I lost my oldest daughter, and that’s just truly broke my heart. I fought for many years just to get out and be with her and then to lose her, but she’s with God now,” Siggers said.
He tries not to focus on the pain, and is moving forward. He has launched a new business called Access Plus to help give inmates access to resources.
Siggers has been speaking to students at several universities about his experience, and is also scheduled to testify before the House Judiciary Committee in Lansing in support of House Bill 6026 to create a Forensic Science Commission.
The CIU is now partnering with the Western Michigan University Cooley Law School Innocence Project. They’ve received a $451,238 grant from the Department of Justice. The two entities will collaborate on a case review and a DNA testing project.
“It’s certainly the first of its kind in the state and it’s a collaborative grant. It will focus on cases involving forensic evidence, and it’s going to be wonderful because it’s going to pour resources into both of our organizations so that we can work together on any of these forensic science cases,” Newman said.
The WMU Innocence Project director, Marla Mitchell-Cichon, is also thrilled with the award.
“The Department of Justice funds will allow our office to continue to provide high-quality legal services to prisoners whose innocence may be proven through DNA testing. We look forward to collaborating with a prosecutor’s office that is committed to rectifying wrongful convictions and improving the criminal justice system,” Mitchell-Cichon said.