From Class to Court: Wrongfully Convicted Get Second Chance With Help From University of Michigan Law Students

Photo: From Class to Court: The University of Michigan Innocence Clinic: Law students fight for innocent prisoners

At the Frank Murphy Hall of Justice in Detroit last Friday, three University of Michigan law school students starred in a court appearance that could have been scripted by "Law and Order."

The students, who are part of the school's newly formed non-DNA evidence innocence clinic, were in court to convince Judge Timothy M. Kenny to hold an evidentiary hearing on their claim that Dwayne Provience, a man serving a prison sentence for the 2001 murder of Rene Hunter, is innocent.

By the time Robyn Goldberg, 27, finished her presentation she had produced police "progress notes" that had never been shared with Provience's defense lawyer and indicated two other people were responsible for Hunter's murder.

Goldberg was followed by Brett DeGroff, 34, who argued before the judge that Provience's legal defense was so shoddy that not a single witness to the murder was called to rebut the prosecution's version of events.

Law student Nick Cheolas went last with the most devastating arguments. The 24-year-old produced documentation that the prosecution's star witness, a convict named Larry Wiley, has since recanted his testimony implicating Provience.

In addition, Cheolas introduced court records showing that two years after Provience's conviction, prosecutors argued at the trial of a hitman that he had been hired by a pair of drug dealers to kill an associate they feared was going to implicate them in Rene Hunter's murder.

The judge, after hearing some procedural motions from the prosecution, announced that he would grant the evidentiary hearings that the clinic had hope for. At a hearing scheduled for November, students from the U. of M. innocence clinic will get a chance to present all the new evidence.

It's a major first victory in the case, the first big step in Provience reclaiming his freedom.

If this were "Law and Order," the trio would be seen standing on the top step of the courthouse now with Sam Waterson giving them a look of approval.

Instead of Waterson, however, the students were under the courtroom supervision of their professors, Bridget McCormack, the law school's dean of clinical affairs, and her partner in leading the innocence clinic, David Moran.

"The truth is they are doing a better job than most lawyers in the state," McCormack says with a wide smile.

The U.of M. clinic takes up where the more established Innocence Project leaves off. The Innocence Project takes cases where DNA can prove guilty or innocence and as of September 2009, was credited with proving the innocence of 242 people wrongly convicted.

The U. of M. students represent clients who they believe have been wrongfully convicted in cases where no biological evidence exists. The clinic started work last winter, and this summer students won their first case by getting the 2001 convictions of two men overturned. The students work on all aspects of the cases, including arguing motions in court.

Before cases make it to court, the U. of M. clinic conducts extensive research. Students look over old court documents and try to hunt down witnesses to find new evidence.

It was in-the-street, gutsy investigative work that led student Maria Jhai, who is in her second year, to the "progress notes" in the Provience case. The mother of a confessed murderer in another case turned over the notes to Jhai, giving the clinic major new evidence.

"It took me a couple of read-throughs to realize what we had," Jhai says.

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